The text was from a good friend in Dublin, as committed a football man as I know. It read simply: “Life is beautiful”.
Some wise man once called sport a magnificent triviality. There was certainly magnificence in Barcelona’s performance on Saturday night but there was nothing trivial in the sight of Eric Abidal, just 71 days after he’d had a liver tumour removed, being given the honour by his team mates of hoisting the biggest prize in European club football — a beautiful touch to complete a beautiful night of beautiful football.
By the way, many of us who were there only saw those fireworks later on the box; it’s a measure of the extent to which a Champions League final occasion is geared solely for television that one whole side of the ground was entirely unaware of the spectacle being played out over their heads for the benefit of millions of viewers all around the world.
No matter, we’d already had our fill of pyrotechnics to make us go ooh and aah. The display on the screen was one for the cameras; the display on the pitch was one for the ages.
It was all about Barca, Barca, BAAARCA! — as the besotted Cules roar at the climax of that stirring club anthem which repeatedly reverberated around Wembley on Saturday. But, to their credit, Manchester United did their best to try and make a game of it against the side which poses the most insoluble set of problems in football. If you stop Xavi, you still have to curb Iniesta. And if you shackle Pedro, there’s still a threat from Villa. And, everywhere and all the time, you have to try and keep an eye on Messi.
Best of luck with that.
For the guts of 15 minutes or so, United did as much as could have been expected of them under the circumstances, their collective effort personified by Ji-Sung Park’s prodigious ground-covering and snap in the tackle. United were getting in their opponents’ faces, giving them no chance to settle into their stride and even unsettling them at the back to the extent that, early on, Gerard Pique and Victor Valdes almost got their wires disastrously crossed.
But the thing United needed most they couldn’t get — the first crucial goal of the game. Instead, just as in Rome two years ago, Barcelona weathered the storm — or, more accurately, the heavy squall — and, once they got their sunshine passing game going, there was an inevitably about happened next: United’s overworked defence pulled so badly out of shape that Pedro had the time and space to wrong-foot van der Sar as if shooting from the spot.
But, again, credit United, for resilience if nothing else. And in Wayne Rooney, they had the one player in their ranks on the night who could live with Barcelona’s elite. United’s goal was well-made and superbly finished but, even as the ball hit the back of the net and the Stretford End belatedly found its voice at Wembley, you had the sense, less of game on than, uh oh, Barcelona will be really annoyed now.
So it proved. Having floated like butterflies all over the lush turf, they now stung like bees. Messi, of course, was at the heart of it. If United afforded him too much space just outside their box for his goal, it was probably because they were afraid he’d try to cut them open with one of those surgical angled passes. But one mark of genius is that Plan B can be as good as Plan A. This time, Messi decided to simply let rip and it was probably less the ferocious power in the shot than its surprise element which wholly confounded poor Edwin van der Sar.
And, with that, the game was well and truly up, David Villa’s goal, the pick of the bunch, merely coming as sublime confirmation of Barca’s complete mastery of the field of battle.
UNITED’S famous fighting spirithas seen them thrive inadversity many times in the past. But this wasn’t Blackburn Rovers or even Chelsea — this was opposition from different planet, never mind a different league.
One little cameo, an almost poignant moment, underlined the huge gulf in quality between the champions of Spain and the champions of England. When Paul Scholes came on to replace Michael Carrick, it did little to rescue United’s overrun and exhausted midfield. Instead, it served mainly as a reminder that one of the persistent problems afflicting this United side is that Carrick has never been able to replace Scholes. And now that the greatest English midfielder of his generation has played his last game for the club, solving that problem will be the most acute item on the agenda at Old Trafford next season.
Right now, you’d get short odds on the peerless, purring Catalans becoming the first team since the great Milan side of 1989 and 1990 to claim back-to-back European Cups.
On the flight back to Dublin yesterday, I found myself sitting next to Craig Burley, who, in common with everyone else, was straining to find a fresh superlative to describe Barcelona’s performance. More than that, though, he admitted he simply couldn’t think of a tactic, let alone a team, that could stop them in their tracks.
Of course, Jose Mourinho’s Inter did it last season but, like any great side, Barcelona seem to be better for that chastening experience. They’re more battle-hardened now, more mature, their mastery of the ball founded on an incredibly focused and disciplined work-rate which is constant throughout but only at its most visible on those very few occasions when the opposition has the temerity to take it back.
And, of course, there is always Messi, the most brilliant and life-affirming football talent on the planet. And — read it and weep for joy — still only 23. Here from Messi at Wembley was the command performance we’ve been waiting for on the highest stage in club football. In two years’ time, in the World Cup in Brazil, he should take the final step into the pantheon alongside Pele, Maradona, Best, Cruyff and Zidane. And, whisper it, maybe surpass them.
So, the only remaining question for now is: could it have gotten any better on Saturday night? Well, yes, actually. It could and should have been 4-1, an iconic scoreline to echo Brazil’s demolition of Italy in Mexico in 1970 and even United’s own first European Cup win against Benfica at the old Wembley in 1968.
And it almost was: right at the death, master of ceremonies Xavi perfectly picked out the run of Iniesta whose first-time cushioned lob had van der Sar back-pedalling and reaching the safety of his goal line just in time to save his further blushes in his last game for the club.
So, yes, thanks for the glorious memories Barcelona, but really lads, you must do better.