Magical Messi casts his spell on United
The only surprise was that after Pedro put the Spanish champions ahead, United should conjure an equaliser through Wayne Rooney. The fear once Lionel Messi, sublime as ever, and David Villa scored was that the margin could become something of an embarrassment.
Ferguson went with both Javier Hernandez and Rooney in a commendable attempt to exert some pressure but only for 10-minute periods at the start and finish could his team do so. The essential problem was exactly as expected. Messi dropped into midfield, neither centre-half quite dared follow him, and without a natural defensive tiger to harrass him in the mould of Nobby Stiles – or Owen Hargreaves – he was able with Xavi and Andres Iniesta to run the game.
Stiles stifled the great Eusebio, by fair means and foul, when Benfica were beaten 4-1 at the old Wembley to make United European champions for the first time but they had no modern equivalent available. “Spirit of ’68″ was spelt out by their supporters in a mosaic before the game, but although the spirit was willing enough as ever, endeavour alone cannot defeat this wonderful Barcelona side.
It is true that United have developed a way of playing in Europe, as Ferguson claimed in their unbeaten run to the final, which involved keeping things tighter than usual and counter-attacking more. Yet only Jose Mourinho in the past couple of years has found the way to play Barça, and the Premier League champions were not inclined to neglect their own positive traditions entirely.
Just like two years ago, United were much the faster out of the blocks, pressing to win the ball, then directing it at the heart of the Barça defence, where Javier Mascherano was clearly perceived as something of a weak link. Three times in the first few minutes Park Ji-Sung or the equally energetic Hernandez won possession back deep in the opposition half and twice there were dangerous thrusts to worry Victor Valdes in the Barça goal.
The balance of play and the mood of the night soon changed, however. In the 10th minute it required a fine saving tackle by Rio Ferdinand to stop Villa. Five minutes more and Pedro jabbed Xavi’s low cross wide of the near post. Twice in quick succession Villa was allowed to shoot, and Nemanja Vidic emulated Ferdinand’s last-ditch tackle as Messi shaped to shoot.
The pressure was building, the statistics recording passes and possession were transformed and in the 27th minute an apparently inevitable goal arrived. Xavi was heavily involved again, waiting calmly until Messi’s run distracted United’s defenders, permitting Pedro the space he needed before Vidic could reach him.
But if pessimists and Catalans sat back expecting a straightforward repeat of Rome, United were not prepared to. Whether driven on by Ferguson’s remonstrations on the touchline or inner pride, they unexpectedly forced a way back into the game by scoring an equaliser within seven minutes. Gratifyingly for the game plan, it stemmed from a Barcelona throw-in on the left from which the ball was regained and moved swiftly in between Michael Carrick and Rooney, then Ryan Giggs – only just onside – and Rooney, who hit it with his right foot well away from Valdes.
Jubilation there may have been in the United section but there were two further warnings even before the interval, first Pedro and then Messi failing by the length of a foot to reach crosses into the six-yard box.
United were sent out early for the second half, only to find Barcelona starting the stronger this time and scoring again after eight minutes. Dani Alves, rampaging forward, was denied by Van der Sar and Patrice Evra headed away a shot by Messi that might have beaten the keeper.
The little Argentinian’s next effort did so in a passage of play that summed up the problem he set United all evening. Dropping off Ferdinand and Vidic once more, he received a square pass from Andres Iniesta and before either Park or Evra could close him down, he had thrashed in what was remarkably his first goal in nine appearances on English soil for club and country.
United were being overrun to the extent that a third goal was no surprise. Carrick and the substitute Nani failed to clear before Sergio Busquets set up Villa for a delicious shot curled into the top corner of the net.
Paul Scholes came on for what could be his final appearance and Van der Sar had the last kick of the match and of his career before United were put out of their misery. The hurt will linger but there can be no disgrace in losing to the best side in the world.
Steve Tongue, The Independent