Saturday, May 28, 2011

They Are A Bit Good, Aren't They

BARCELONA 3-1 Manchester United

So it's quite simple: Barcelona are the best team in Europe, and Manchester United are a very distant second.

And Barcelona can still thrill when they are not faced with a parked bus.

I wondered about the wisdom of United starting with the same eleven against Schalke, and their apparent plan to press Barca rather than sit off them.

For eight minutes or so, it looked a masterstroke. They pressed ferociously, Barca looked nervous, and it was all quite reminiscent of the beginning of the 2009 final.

Here, a couple of long, straight forward balls had Masherano and Pique looking jittery, and Valdes had to sweep up.

But as in 2009, Barca found a foothold around the 10 minute mark. This time it came not in the shape of a sucker-punch goal, but in dominance of the ball. The intensity of United's pressing inevitably dropped, but they still looked to release Hernandez early when the opportunity arose. The Mexican could not time his runs, though, and was caught offside four times in the opening twenty.

The convincing attacking was done at the other end. Xavi and Iniesta were, at times, conjuring yards of space where there seemed only inches. With Messi breaking into the box on more than one occasion, Ferdinand and Vidic were forced to make some heroic challenges. Pedro prodded a Xavi cross wide from close range, and Villa, looking in the mood, came very close with a couple of snap shots.

A goal was on the cards. It came when Iniesta released Xavi into the United half with a nonchalant pass. The captain for the night (Puyol was on the bench) advanced towards the area, waited patiently for the right option to present itself, and found Pedro pulling into acres on the right of the box. He took a touch and, with Van der Sar poorly positioned, passed the ball casually inside the near post.

The simplicity of the goal, coming as it did after a spell of Barca brilliance, must have unnerved United, and it took them a while to gather themselves.

But when they did, they scored a fine goal of their own. The chance stemmed, again, from determined pressing. Abidal threw up the line from deep inside Barca's half, but United squeezed effectively, and Rooney picked up the ball. A quick one-two with Carrick, who was playing well, freed up Rooney to drive into the box, and then another one-two, with Giggs, opened space for the shot, which he swept imperiously into the top corner.

United had been ruthless when their first big chance arrived. Barca were less efficient in front of goal. Messi found Villa on the right, and his return pass into the goalmouth was just missed by the little man.

It had been a very, very good contest up to half time. Barca the better side, but United playing very well, bringing out the best in their illustrious opponents. 1-1 and finely poised. It threatened to be a classic, but in the end wasn't, because Barca were a little too good. Their superiority for the first twenty-five of the second half was almost total.

They got back in front when Messi was left in space on the edge of the area. As Evra charged, a static Vidic inadvertently unsighted his goalkeeper, and Messi's sweet shot skipped past Van der Sar. United in response were playing very direct, still looking quite dangerous at times, but their attacks were only sporadic and they were not making any chances.

Barca, on the other hand, were on fire, and it looked as if only their profligacy and, at times, complacency, could stop them ending the contest. Alves was put through, and denied by Van der Sar. Then he crossed into the goalmouth, but an extravagant flick from ? did not provide the finishing touch and United scrambled clear. Xavi swerved in an effort from range that was well parried. At last, just when Nani was introduced and you wondered about Barca's freshness in the final twenty minutes, Villa curled in a magnificent third from the edge of the area.

After that, you would have been entitled to expect one of two things. Either Barca would score a couple more, or they would pass, pass, pass and frustrate United, who had already been chasing shadows for much of the second half.

It was a tribute to the mental strength of Ferguson's side that they dominated the remainder of the game, visibly still believing in their chances of executing an unlikely comeback. Barca tried to tip-tap their way to the final whistle, but United snapped into challenges as they had at the start of the match, and stormed forward in numbers. Rooney curled an effort onto the roof of the net; Nani cut in from the right but dragged his shot wide. Barca sat back in the last few minutes, made some defensive changes, and snuffed out the rest of what United had to offer.

The curtain came down on the season, and even if overall it was far from vintage, it had ended with a very good game, one that showcased the best of Barcelona.

Alex Ferguson showed real class, giving Guardiola warm congratulations.

In fairness, this United side had also shown their best, and the qualities which make them the best team in England. Theirs truly is a never say die attitude. But that, along with their own considerable talent, was not enough to even approach the greatness of an amazing Barcelona.

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