Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Brilliant Barcelona and Magnificent Messi Humble Manchester United and Ronaldo

A victory for football? Without a doubt.

Barcelona, inspired by the sublime Lionel Messi beat Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League Final in Rome tonight. But in truth they gave the English Premier League Champions a real lesson in football.

Samuel Eto'o gave Barcelona the lead after some early pressure from United and Messi scored a brilliant header after he hung in the air and guided the ball back towards the far post after a fantastic cross from Xavi.

In the opening minutes Manchester United went close twice, both times through Cristiano Ronaldo as a nervous looking Barcelona invited the Red Devils on.

But in the 10th minute Barca broke quickly and Eto'o found himself on the right hand side of the box. He easily beat Ferdinand and then a defensive error by Vidic who showed the Cameroonian striker inside instead of to the line allowed Eto'o to fire past Van der Sar at the near post to give the Catalan's the lead and to also settle their nerves.

For a goalkeeper who set a record of clean sheets this season, the goal was a real shocker. Leaving far too much space at the near post is a cardinal mistake for a keeper of any level, but especially one of the Dutchman's experience.

From there on Barcelona were in control. All of the British tabloids ran with tactical boards in their papers during the week of how United were going to beat Barcelona. But they all made one fatal error in doing so.

While writing the articles they only concentrated on United's strong points and Barcelona's weaknesses. Whereas tonight it was all about Barcelona's good points and United's weaknesses, particularly in central midfield.

Xavi and Andres Iniesta dominated central midfield to such an extent that you had to count the white jerseys just to see if they had 11 players on the pitch. the intelligence of their play was a joy to behold, the passed and penetrated United's rear-gard at will and most importantly of all they kept the ball moving quickly and kept possession.

The simple tactic of passing to another player in a Barcelona jersey had United's midfield in ribbons. Michael Carrick, Anderson, and Giggs were all passengers as Barcelona's midfield dominated the game.

Lionel Messi was employed inside, while Samuel Eto'o kept drifting in between Ferdinand and Evra, occupying both.

With Xavi and Iniesta looking for the diminutive Argentinian at every opportunity, United's midfield looked stretched. Anderson and Carrick were static and could not get close enough to any of Los Cules slick playmakers, while PFA Player of the Year, Ryan Giggs looked like his legs had gone and that he was way out of his depth.

Thierry Henry kept splitting O'Shea and Vidic while Eto'o was doing the same to Ferdinand and Evra on the other side, leaving huge gaps for Messi and co. to charge into at regular intervals.

With United's midfield starved of the ball, Wayne Rooney, Park Ji-Sung, and Cristiano Ronaldo were simple spectators. While Rooney and Ronaldo had the intelligence to force their way into the game, Anderson and Park did not and United effectively had nine men for the entire first half.

Alex Ferguson had got it wrong, well wrong. In leaving Tevez on the bench, he had lost the industry that the Argentinian constantly brings to the table, and having being robbed of Darren Fletcher, he had effectively lost his most combative midfielder.

Fletcher is a good player, but even he would not have made much difference. This game was screaming out for a Roy Keane or a Bryan Robson to take midfield by the scruff of the neck, and United do not possess a player of that calibre.

Barcelona took to the pitch without three of their normal back four, and as luck would have it, two of those players were replaced with more defensively sound players. Alves and Abidal are both great attacking full backs, but Puyol and Sylvinho are both better defenders, so in a way Barcelona ened up with the right full backs for the right game.

They left the pitch at half-time to a standing ovation, such was their dominance over last season's Champions League winners.

Carlos Tevez was brought on at half time for the ineffective Anderson as United tried to get back into the game, but in truth they should have made at least one more change.

And as a result Barcelona continued their dominance. Perfect passing was meshed with intelligent running off the ball as Messi continued to haunt United's lacklustre midfield.

Everytime Messi got the ball United panicked and with just cause. He has incredibly quick feet and is surprisingly strong as he held off challenges from Vidic, Carrick, and Rooney before drawing a foul on the edge of the box.

And it was not just United's midfield that were being brushed aside. In defence, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were being torn apart. Eto'o had them running in circles while Thierry Henry was running rings around them.

In short Barcelona were doing to United what United would do to West Brom, and it showed. United began to lose discipline and Ferguson again made substitutions as he tried to pry the game open.

The ineffective Ji-Sung Park went off for the uninterested Dimitar Berbatov. And soon after the match was over.

Evra pushed on and was dispossessed by Xavi, as he tried in vain to make it back, Ronaldo looked on and walked as Xavi probed for Eto'o.

The ball was cleared back to Xavi who was free to advance, after Ronaldo had failed to track him over the 10 yards. The Barcelona playmaker produced a pass of the highest order as Messi drifted in between Vidic and Ferdinand and he seemed to hang in the air as all the very best players can and guided home a lofted header that gave Van der Sar no chance.

It was the little Argentinian's first goal against English opposition, and what a goal.

Immediately from the tip, United broke and Valdes blocked from Ronaldo on the line when it looked easier to score, and with that missed chance the game was all over.

As Barca continued to dominate, Ronaldo showed the poor side of his character and got a silly booking for a needless tackle, completely losing his side battle with Messi for who is the best player in the world.

As the game moved towards it's end, Barca kept attacking looking for their third, but only Van der Sar's heroics at the feet of Puyol denied the Catalan team the comprehensive scoreline their play deserved.

The game reminded me of the classic AC Milan/Barcelona final of '94. Where Milan, one of the greatest club sides of all time completely outclassed their opponents with a stunning 4-0 win.

In winning Pep Guardiola has made Spanish footballing history. Not only has he joined an elite group of only six individuals who have won the European Cup as a player and a coach but he is also the first ever Spanish manager to win the treble.

A suitable end to a phenomenal season at Camp Nou.

twitter / WillieGannon