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Tonight the Champions League Final saw the English and Spanish domestic trophy holders clash for the undisputed title of being the best team in Europe. Both teams entered the Final with 3 Champions League trophies to their name; to win this 4th trophy would mean that they could take their place in history alongside the European legends of Liverpool, Ajax, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Manchester United had the majority of the possession in the first 15 minutes, white shirts hounded the Barcelona defence but their attacks came to nothing more than a few brief encounters in and around the box.
Finally Barcelona got up to operating temperature and Pedro sent the ball wide after some quick football from David Villa and Xavi – there was much more of that to come.
Two more shots came from David Villa which went even closer than Pedro’s effort and Manchester United must have been yearning to get back to the possession they had enjoyed during the early minutes – Barcelona were settling into their ominously predictable, unpredictable forays from midfield.
United were not going to be spared from the brilliance of Lionel Messi it seemed, his first real action was to make four United players look like statues as he dribbled the ball past them. Minutes after, he was denied a clear shot on goal only by a perfect tackle from Vidic.
At this point Sir Alex Ferguson had left his seat and joined Pep Guardiola on the touchline to try command his men back on course. Whatever he was ordering was not in time to stop Pedro scoring first. A pass from Villa, probably not the most dangerous of the night so far, found its way to Pedro who had plenty of time to slot the ball into an opening at the near post.
After half an hour Barcelona had completed 265 passes compared to a mere 100 from Manchester United, however Wayne Rooney was about to show that his team was not fazed by the Barcelona possession. Great link-up play between Ryan Giggs and Rooney led to a shot being fired from 16 yards out which sailed past Victor Valdes and into the net. It was back to level again and game on.
The goal did not mark the start of a United charge, Barcelona still threatened. Iniesta launched a shot from range which wasn’t far off, but an even closer chance was at the very end of the half when Villa supplied a pass across the goal mouth which Messi at full stretch narrowly missed connecting with.
The half time whistle blew dead on the 45 minute mark. It was a half that was relentlessly quick, neither side had sought to reduce the tempo of the game and I’m sure the break came as an unwelcome distraction to two teams who both looked incredibly focussed.
After the resumption of play there was clearly little change in either of the teams tactics, neither manager had made a substitution and Barcelona were back on the offensive with United trying to break their spells of possession.
It was at this point in the game that Barcelona looked most menacing. Their pressure was relentless and tiring for the Manchester United defence who could not anticipate what was coming from a team who did not use a striker but instead attacked from midfield.
Lionel Messi scored his 53rd goal of the season in the 53rd minute in spectacular fashion, firing a shot from 25 yards out and past Edwin Van Der Sar who, on a better day, would have saved it. It really was an excellent goal from Messi, a player who has made excellence a habit – his manager was jubilant but seemed unsurprised at his prodigy’s goal.
Messi was fouled for the 3rd time by Antonio Valencia who seemed intent on keeping him on the floor, but in typical fashion, the most prolific scorer in La Liga returned to his feet without complaint and proceeded to terrorise the Manchester defence and midfield.
Dani Alves received a yellow card just before 60 minutes for tripping Patrice Evra and soon after Micheal Carrick was booked for a very late tackle on Andres Iniesta. Overall, it was to be a very good performance from the Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai.
Barcelona had Manchester United in the corner, their constant attacks and swift passing left the English Champions looking punch drunk. Dani Alves could have delivered the knockout blow at 64 minutes after a Barcelona attack had left the United defence dangerously exposed.
Sir Alex Ferguson tried change his fortunes by removing the flagging full back Fabio and replacing him with Nani. No substitution could have prevented Iniesta’s shot in the 66th minute however, it was a 20 yard curling strike which looped into the top corner, Van Der Sar could have done nothing this time.
The trophy engraver had probably started carving FC Barcelona’s name into the massive Champions League cup at this point – Man United showed no sign of getting back into the game.
The remaining 20 minutes were a little more contested, Giggs threatened and Nani shot but their attacks were not carried out with the relentless conviction Barcelona had displayed throughout.
Puyol came on after 87 minutes, the captain had played no starting role in the final but it was only right that such a key figure in their Champions League campaign was on the pitch to savour the moment the final whistle blew.
When it did Sir Alex Ferguson looked dejected but you could see that he knew his team had been wholly outclassed on the night – he would have to wait another year to play Barcelona, who would almost certainly be in the final if they remain at this exemplary standard.
I don’t think anybody would have left Wembley tonight feeling short changed, a ticket to the final bought a seat to witness some beautiful football. It is hard to see how anyone can come close to Barcelona in the near future if they can dispatch Manchester United with such ease.