The champions of Spain triumphed over the champions of England in what turned out to be a wonderful spectacle as both teams came out to try and play football instead of trying to nullify each other. With United’s fast-tempo beginning, Barcelona’s greedy possession, Messi’s magic and no mention of the referee in the post-final analysis, it will be remembered as a refreshing final; one of the best in recent history and a great advertisement for the game.
However, this played into the hands of one club and FC Barcelona came out on top with a dominating performance; perhaps, confirming the side’s place as arguably the most formidable side in football club history.
“Great clubs, have had one thing in common throughout history, regardless of era and tactics. They owned the pitch and they owned the ball. That means when you have the ball, you dictate play and when you are defending, you control the space.” – Arrigo Sacchi
United’s quick start unsettled Barcelona
As expected, the match build-up involved talk about running, running, and more running. It is a typical English mentality which puts more emphasis on a fast start and loads of physical effort. However, Barcelona are masters of hurrying opponents, themselves. United did start the game by pressing Barca all over the pitch and with very good effect. The first ten minutes were dominated by United so much so that Barcelona were pinned down in their own half.
A lot of factors contributed to this. Barcelona were coming into this game after a break of two weeks; some players rested for three weeks. They would always need more time to settle down. This was the best period for United to score, but they never managed to create a clear cut chance. After early signs of vulnerability, normal order of Barcelona matches was restored. The Catalans managed to dig deep. What United needed was someone who could really dominate the midfield with creativity and the technical skill to keep possession. A younger Scholes may have managed to do that, but United lacked such a player.
Barca controlled the game
Once the players started to get into their groove, the story was different. Park ran the most distance but he was always chasing shadows. The midfield triangles – primarily between Messi, Xavi and Iniesta – were taking out the pressure put by United and the English champions began tiring. Barcelona’s movement was immense. The two-week break was starting to take effect, helping Barca as their pressing and movement was lot more fresher than in some of the recent matches.
Holding possession of the ball has never been a problem for the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. The control was so much that, eventually, the match was comfortably won. Manchester United gave a very good account of themselves by fighting till they could. They were simply outplayed, though. They rarely got possession to trouble Barca. This Barcelona team’s tactical awareness was simply outstanding. It is true that Alves and Abidal venture too much into attacking zones, but they rarely lose shape. Busquets is always there to cover the defense. The relentless pressing made it hard for United to come at them with speed. Evra’s poor game meant United were out numbered constantly on the right hand side with Alves always finding himself free. This was mostly because Park had to help out in the middle. This left the French left-back open against Pedro and Alves; the Barcelona pair exploiting the space with devastating effect.
Midfield won the match
Midfield is the engine room of any side and the team controlling it usually wins. Barcelona had Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in there, with Messi joining in occasionally. Giggs and Carrick along with Park and Valencia were given the job to counter them. The difference in quality is apparent. Giggs doesn’t have the legs to stay with the pace of Barca’s passing. Rooney was given the task of occupying Busquets to not allow him space. He wasn’t doing bad, but Barca’s formation is very fluid. Xavi was coming deeper to get the ball and Busquets was dragging Rooney deeper by moving forward.
Man marking this Barca team is almost suicidal. The tactical awareness of the players is astounding. Messi was simply moving to the right and deeper in order to move away from Carrick and Giggs. Vidic and Rio simply had nobody to mark. With Xavi completing 142 passes with 95.6% accuracy and Iniesta completing 107 passes, it is very evident who won the midfield battle. Sergio Busquets was one of the best players on the pitch.
Messi is out of the world
It is easy to plan a lot about how to stop this man, but sometimes, it is impossible. He has something which no other player has and it cannot be taught. He contributed in all three of the goals. He took out Evra in the first goal by making a decoy run inside, thus forcing him to leave Pedro alone. He made the second goal for himself after Iniesta fed him the ball. Carrick was busy monitoring Iniesta and Giggs was out of position that gave him the space needed to shoot. He also started the move that led to Villa’s goal. He was named the man of the match. The Argentine took on a defender 16 times in this match and succeeded 10 times. He also completed 92 passes in the game.
Barca cannot defend?
It was built up as the best defense, with a good attack, against the best attack with a weak defence. There were numerous articles indicating how weak Barca’s defense is. To add to that, Puyol was not fit and Mascherano was playing as a central defender. From a traditional and more English point of view, it is true. Barca’s fullbacks push up and leave space behind. They commit a lot of men forward, but it is an inherent aspect of their style.
To understand how they defend is to have a very different view of football. “Their possession game is boring” – is a very often heard statement from some fans. This is where the defense of Barca actually is at its full swing. When you are in possession, the opponent cannot attack. Barcelona leaving spaces in defense is due to the trust they have in their ability to keep the ball. Manchester United managed a total of three shots in the whole game where as Barca managed seventeen. Barcelona have conceded, on an average, only two shots to the opponents throughout this Champions league campaign; not a statistic for a particularly poor defense.
Could an additional midfielder have helped?
Manchester United were getting outnumbered in the middle. They simply were out run and out-passed. Could an extra midfielder have helped? Hernandez was anonymous except for a few runs that came to nothing. He was not getting enough supply from the deep. And that is due to the fact that Barcelona were not sharing the ball much. An extra midfielder could have made it difficult for Barcelona, but that would also mean even less attacking threat for United upfront with Rooney on his own. It was a lose-lose situation for United. An extra midfielder means defending deeper. United are definitely good in counter-attack, but with Barcelona having so much control on the game, it would have been less effective. Sir Alex Ferguson was not prepared to park the bus as he might have felt that such tactics are for smaller teams and Manchester United are too big a club to take that route. But Sir Alex Ferguson would be proud about how his team gave it all till the end. He gave Barca the ultimate compliment.
“In my time as a manager, it’s the best team we have ever faced. No one has ever given us a hiding like that!“
Abidal lifts the cup
It was a great moment at the end when Abidal lifted the cup, wearing the Captain’s arm band. The man who returned after fighting cancer, started the Champions League final, didn’t put a foot wrong in the whole 90 minutes and lifted the trophy. There could be very few examples for human spirit better than Abidal’s.
Football was the ultimate winner on the night at Wembley. An unforgettable Champions League Final, not only for a team’s crushing dominance, but for being a football spectacle as a whole.