Barcelona 2-0 Man Utd
By Phil McNulty
Chief football writer in Rome
Manchester United’s attempt to make history and become the first club to defend the Champions League ended in failure against Barcelona in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.Manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s hopes of repeating last year’s triumph against Chelsea barely got off the ground as they ended well beaten by a Barcelona side inspired by the genius of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi. United started the final, played in stifling heat, as if retaining their crown would be little more than a formality, creating a host of early chances against the nervous-looking Catalans, with Cristiano Ronaldo a constant threat. But once Samuel Eto’o scored at Edwin van der Sar’s near post in the 10th minute after escaping Nemanja Vidic, the credits were rolling on their bid to add the Champions League to the Premier League for the second successive season.
Barcelona’s peerless midfield pair of Andres Iniesta and Xavi ruled midfield with a display of passing perfection, starving United of further opportunities to strike at a defence weakened by injuries and suspension. Xavi hit the post with a free-kick and Thierry Henry was denied by Van der Sar before Messi crowned a glorious personal performance with a stunning header to clinch victory with 20 minutes remaining. He made a mockery of his tiny stature to rise and head home Xavi’s cross – and in that magical moment any hopes United harboured of a recovery were snuffed out. If the showdown between Messi and Ronaldo was billed as the spectacular sub-plot within this showpiece, there was only one winner as Barcelona’s playmaker terrorised United throughout. Ronaldo, for all his obvious frustrations that ended almost inevitably in a yellow card for a late barge on Carles Puyol, never stopped running but this was not to be his night or United’s.
Ferguson warned in the build-up that Iniesta – arguably the game’s most influential performer – and Xavi could put opponents “on a carousel” with their passing, and his prediction proved ominously correct as United were on a rough ride after the optimism of those opening 10 minutes. Once Barcelona had settled after the early goal, there was no way back for United as several changes in formation failed to produce a spark and Wayne Rooney was unable to exert any influence on events, first from the left flank and then from the centre. And as Barcelona’s name was carved on the giant trophy at the final whistle, with the celebrations of the Catalan fans a sharp contrast to the subdued Manchester United supporters, there was no doubting their right to claim Europe’s elite trophy for the third time.
Ryan Giggs took the place of the suspended Darren Fletcher in the United line-up – and for the first 10 minutes they penned a nervous Barcelona back in their own territory. The game was only two minutes old when Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes fumbled Ronaldo’s free-kick, and only the crucial intervention of former United defender Gerard Pique prevented Ji-Sung Park turning in the rebound. Ronaldo was then twice narrowly off target before Barcelona made their first serious incursion into United territory. And it was to devastating effect as they turned the opening exchanges upside down to take the lead.
Barcelona will credit the brilliance of Eto’o, but it was a cheap shot from United’s viewpoint as the Cameroon striker was allowed to escape by Vidic and keeper Van der Sar’s effort to block the effort at his near post was flimsy, to put it kindly. It was against the run of play, but gave Barcelona a visible injection of confidence and adrenalin, allowing Messi to pull the strings up front and Xavi and Iniesta to take control of midfield. Iniesta may have been an injury doubt prior to this final, but there was little evidence of fitness problems as he produced a virtuoso demonstration of the modern midfield arts, leaving United to chase in vain in an attempt to regain possession for the latter stages of the opening half. In one magical moment, all three of Vidic, Michael Carrick and Rooney were foiled in an attempt to take the ball away from Messi, with the Argentine eventually forcing a foul. Rooney was a peripheral figure, pushed to the margins of the game on the left flank. He was too important a figure to be starved of possession and influence in this system, and it was no surprise when Ferguson pushed him inside as half-time approached. Ferguson made another switch during the interval, sending on Carlos Tevez for the ineffective Anderson, a positive move that reflected United’s failure to build on their early domination. It was not a quick fix as Barcelona simply continued in their imperious stride after the break, Thierry Henry tricking his way inside Rio Ferdinand only to be denied by the legs of Van der Sar.
Xavi then almost doubled Barcelona’s lead with a 20-yard free-kick following Vidic’s foul on Messi. He beat Van der Sar with his curling effort, but it rebounded off an upright to safety. United were struggling to get a clear sight of Barcelona’s goal, and in a bid to remedy this problem Ferguson sent on Dimitar Berbatov for Park with 25 minutes remaining. The change had no chance to take effect before Barcelona deservedly went two up five minutes later. Xavi was the creator with a cross that looked too high for Messi, but he expertly soared to send a header over Van der Sar. United looked to mount an instant response, with Valdes blocking crucially from Ronaldo, but there was no way back and it was Barcelona who looked more likely to add to their lead. Van der Sar saved well from Puyol as Barcelona dominated until the final whistle – and not even the most partisan Manchester United follower can doubt that Pep Guardiola deserved to round off a dream first season in charge by adding the Champions League to the La Liga title and the Spanish Cup. Barcelona: Valdes, Puyol, Toure Yaya, Pique, Sylvinho, Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta (Pedrito 90), Messi, Eto’o, Henry (Keita 72). Subs Not Used: Pinto, Caceres, Muniesa, Gudjohnsen, Bojan. Booked: Pique. Goals: Eto’o 10, Messi 70. Man Utd: Van der Sar, O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra, Anderson (Tevez 46), Carrick, Giggs (Scholes 75), Park (Berbatov 66), Ronaldo, Rooney. Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, Rafael Da Silva, Evans, Nani. Booked: Ronaldo, Scholes, Vidic. Att: 72,700 Ref: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland). BBC Sport Player Rater man of the match: Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta 8.39 (on 90 minutes). Please note that you can still give the players marks out of 10 on BBC Sport’s Player Rater after the match has finished.