Champions League: Barça, victory a triumph for imagination
The little man was 30 yards from goal when he picked up an apparently innocuous square pass from Andrés Iniesta. As usual, contact with the ball seemed to send electricity coursing through his slight frame. With three touches he had made 10 yards, and Manchester United were just waking up to the danger, with Patrice Evra making a belated sprint to meet the Barcelona No10, when the Argentinian master calmly cocked his left leg and sent a shot past Edwin van der Sar.
How gently he created havoc. Drifting into remote areas away from his notional markers, time and again he opened space for others while giving himself scope for those irresistible surges. This was, in sum, the most effective performance by a deep-lying centre-forward since Nandor Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick in Hungary’s 6-3 defeat of England on this same pitch one autumnal afternoon in 1953. The pre-match ceremonies, rather different from the sort of thing expected half a century ago, included the appearance on the pitch of a hundred or so dancers dressed as City gents, in bowler hats and pinstriped suits and umbrellas, until they stripped off to reveal more informal clothing before reassembling to accompany a trio of rappers.
Luckily, such nonsenses are forgotten as soon as the 22 footballers enter the arena, and you have to wonder why anyone bothers.
The first big shock of the night had come with the arrival of the team sheets, indicating the absence of Carles Puyol, Barcelona’s combative captain and defensive spark plug. A product of the academy at La Masia and a veteran of 12 years in the first team, Puyol had played only three games since his partial recovery from a bad knee injury, and is scheduled to have an operation this week. Evidently Pep Guardiola considered him too great a risk over 90 minutes and assigned him to the bench.
“We are surprised because he is a super-expert at big finals,” a Spanish journalist said before the kick-off. Winner’s medals from one World Cup, one European championship, two European Cups, one European Super Cup and one Club World Cup would provide plenty of evidence for that assessment.
Puyol’s replacement in the starting line-up was Javier Mascherano, expensively acquired from Liverpool last summer but unable to displace Sergio Busquets from his role at the base of midfield. The need to improvise a solution recalled the final in Rome two years ago, when Barcelona confronted United with a defence lacking the injured Rafael Márquez and the suspended Eric Abidal and Dani Alves, requiring Puyol to move over to left-back with Yaya Touré slotting into the unfamiliar role of centre-back alongside Gerard Piqué.
On that occasion the Premier League team came close to capitalising on Barcelona’s early uncertainties at the back, creating five clear chances in the opening exchanges before Samuel Eto’o, with the Catalan side’s first attack, struck the blow in the 10th minute that conclusively knocked the wind out of United’s sails.
Eerily, Saturday night’s match began with a very precise echo of that match 24 months ago. Or perhaps, given the deeply implanted character traits of these two clubs, it should not have been a surprise to see them repeating many lines from the first act of that drama.
With United pressing all over the pitch, Barcelona had to show patience before establishing their rhythm. Alves was robbed by Park Ji-sung in the opening minute, Busquets had his pocket picked by Javier Hernández inside Barcelona’s penalty area, Víctor Valdés put a clearance straight into touch, Messi was dispossessed by Park, Busquets by Antonio Valencia, Pedro by Fábio.
So that was the first nine minutes. And then, just like last time, Barcelona started to play. There was no immediate Eto’o-style bolt from the blue, but gradually they began to find their rhythm with those five-yard exchanges that resemble a game of pass-the-parcel. And as they did so, the difference in styles became more glaringly apparent than ever. The breakdown of a Barcelona move would be followed by the ball whistling back over their heads in a fruitless attempt to find a United attacker, and the whole tiki-taka process would begin again.
All the constructive football was coming from Barcelona, but this time it took them 27 minutes to score. A handful of Messi dribbles and two David Villa shots might have brought earlier rewards, had it not been for desperate defending, before Iniesta prodded the ball straight ahead to Xavi, who squared it to Pedro on the right. Messi had made a decoy run on an inside diagonal, taking Evra with him and leaving Nemanja Vidic helpless to reach Pedro before the forward guided his shot past Van der Sar’s left hand.
Seven minutes later Barcelona’s defensive flaws were exposed as Wayne Rooney combined first with Fábio and then with Ryan Giggs before meeting the Welshman’s delicately weighted return pass with a beautifully judged first-time shot which curled away from the diving Valdés. Giggs appeared to be in an offside position, but Xavi, Iniesta and Messi could only stand and admire the confidence with which Rooney created and finished the move.
Barcelona were quickly back into their pitter-patter stride, with Messi all but irresistible as he dribbled through the middle, turned the ball to Villa on the right, and just failed meet the return as it whistled across the face of Van der Sar’s goal.
The second half was more of the same, with Barcelona making United’s football look rudimentary, approximate, agricultural. A triumph for artistry, patience, imagination. And not a hint of gamesmanship. Magnificent, actually.
Richard Williams, The Guardian