Arrivederci Roma

WE ALL know that getting to the final of the Champions League is hard but I say that getting away from it is harder still.

Even old Dante himself would have struggled to do justice to the inferno that was Leonardo da Vinci Airport on Thursday morning as what appeared to be the entire attendance from the Stadio Olimpico the previous night now desperately sought an exit strategy from the Eternal City.

The scenes were reminiscent of the madness that was Istanbul airport on the morning after the 2005 final. The big difference then was that all the travellers festooned in red were still so delirious with joy after Liverpool’s sensational comeback victory the previous night that nothing could have spoiled their day.

For those wearing red in Rome airport, however, the mood was rather different, the glum faces of each new arrival growing positively thunderous as they took in the scenes of mayhem unfolding before them.

The heart of the problem was that only one gate to the security area was open, causing a massive human tailback which made the notorious morning rush-hour at Dublin Airport look like a polite little queue in the local library. Tempers ran dangerously high as people with imminent departures to make pleaded to be allowed jump the queue. Those who had already been shuffling along for the best part of an hour were not inclined to give way.

Eventually the panicking authorities decided it might be wise to open a second gate — but without ensuring that those who were already near the front would get preference. Seizing its opportunity, the tail of the human snake suddenly whipped forward, with hundreds of the very latest arrivals making a dash for the new escape route. With a great guttural roar,hundreds more from the existing line cut across in an attempted blocking move. A great heaving ruck ensued as organised chaos gave way to totalanarchy. In the middle of the throng I suddenly spotted a famous face beneath a familiar thatch of blond hair: Ronald Koeman, whose goal from a free-kick against Sampdoria gave a Barcelona side containing PepGuardiola their first European Cuptriumph at Wembley in 1992. It always comes as a jolt to see a former star reduced to slumming it with the rest of us plebs though, in all fairness, big Ron was probably looking across at me at the same moment and thinking, “Jeez, there’s the guy from TV GA GA — where did it all go wrong?”

There was no sign, however, of Catalonia’s favourite adopted son of the lowlands. Since he ranks that bit higher on the global pecking order than his compatriot, I’d have to assume that Johann Cruyff — the coaching mastermind behind that ‘92 triumph — was in one of the convoys of sleek back limousines being whisked out to the airport by motorcycle cops, thence to be smoothly ushered through a VIP exit away from the broiling masses.

But Cruyff will know only too well that it’s dangerous to try to rewrite history or predict the future on the basis of one evening of football. All those now proclaiming that Alex Ferguson got his tactics wrong, were effusive in their praise when the same approach floored Arsenal in their own backyard in the semi-final. Similarly, the old argument that Wayne Rooney was too isolated out on the left overlooks how lethal he was — especially in combination on the counter with Ronaldo — when attacking from the same position at the Emirates.

But while it’s obvious that Barca are much further along the road to footballing nirvana than Arsenal, the key difference on Wednesday was in central midfield where Ferguson’s bemoaning the loss of Darren Fletcher was testament not so much to that player’s value as a protective force but rather to the untouchable superiority of Iniesta and Xavi on the night. You suspect even a Man U with Roy Keane in the engine room would have struggled to cope with those two in irresistible form.

Yet, the irony is that a Barcelona side with the same players on board and a much more settled back four than it had on display on Wednesday, had to count themselves lucky to be in the Stadio Olimpico at all, having been throttled to within seconds of asphyxiation by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. As our American friends would say: go figure. When Didier Drogba lost the plot at the Bridge and a bald man from Norway became Public Enemy Number One in West London, Manchester United’s pre-eminence in English football seemed assured. With the Premiership already in the bag it still is, but with the FA Cup to be decided today, there’s every chance that, while the season has ended in tears for Man U, it could yet end in cheers for Chelsea.

Who’d a thunk it? The exquisite geometry of Barcelona’s passing was wonderful to behold in Rome. But an eternal capacity to surprise, confound and make mugs of the all experts — that’s the beauty of football too.

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