Manchester United, and their suffering fans all over the world, were left simply bewildered by Barcelona’s performance at Wembley last night. Throughout the Rijkaard and Guardiola era, Barcelona had sought to build a footballing dynasty and had conjured up some absurdly brilliant displays; the 2009 final in Rome springs to mind, not to mention the countless beatings handed down to their perturbed rivals Real Madrid in recent seasons. But it could be argued that their performance in this season’s Champions League final was the greatest of them all.
So far, that is.
The constant suggestion that this side is the greatest we’ve ever seen, seemed preposterous at first for a variety of reasons. Mainly, we should consider that the state of La Liga is at an all time low on and off the pitch and it’s often so hard an argument to evaluate considering that so few have seen all that much of the supposed great teams over the years. Also, although not always necessary, it’s important to consider how many top-level trophies a team wins together and to let them see out their time together before evaluating their greatness. It seems as though he’s been at the Camp Nou a lot longer, but this is only Pep Guardiola’s third season in charge.
The match at Wembley did settle one debate though.
Since the inception of the Champions League format there hasn’t been a football team in Europe capable of slicing teams apart at will like this Barcelona side can. That much is now for sure. Many Champions League finals have been dominated by one team but never to such an extent. In fact, perhaps the only negative to be drawn from such an entertaining final is that it’s highly unlikely that a side will play as openly against Barcelona for the considerable future. Manchester United stuck boldly to their roots and tried to attack, resisting the temptation to sacrifice Hernandez for Anderson or Fletcher, only for Messi and co to pick them to pieces.
Take Michael Carrick, for example. At the heartbeat of Manchester United’s midfield for five years now, Carrick is arguably the best passer and retainer of the ball England has produced for years, perhaps since his team-mate Paul Scholes came through the Old Trafford ranks. Since his arrival from Spurs, Carrick has won four league titles in five years and played a key role in driving United to three champions league finals in four years, beating Chelsea in 2008’s final. However, pitch him in against Xavi and Iniesta, Carrick is made to look seriously out of his depth. In fact, the entire United midfield looked like competition winners, chasing the opposition for as long as their bodies would allow them to. Moreover, two of the world’s finest and most consistent central defenders, who actually played rather well, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, were made to constantly back track and looked helpless against Villa and Messi. Indeed, Messi has now becoame the youngster ever player to win three European Cups/Champions Leagues at the astonishing age of just 23.
Although the mesmerising Messi is the jewel in the Catalan crown, Europe must also collectively bow in awe of the Barcelona defence. With the signing of Pique to partner Puyol, Josep Guardiaola has added the ridged spine which the 1992 “Dream Team” perhaps lacked at times. The old cliché used to be that Barcelona are great going forward but a bit leaky at the back; Pep has made sure this is no longer the case.
With this squad, it’s hard to imagine any team in Europe overcoming Barcelona. United are probably the second best team in Europe, maybe the third when Real Madrid is considered, but the difference between first and second is massive. Both Madrid and United, along with Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Milan, and the rest, now have the unenviable task of trying to make the same leap Barcelona have in recent years. But how do these teams achieve that? When you consider that Barcelona essentially organically created this squad using graduates of their La Masia training academy you have to wonder if it is it even possible to reach their level of skill and awareness. Whilst teams like Manchester City and Chelsea build their stellar line ups by buying in the latest prodigies for obscene amounts of cash, Barcelona have evolved as a footballing family. They grew up alongside one another sharing the same philosophies about how football should be played, many of them, such as Xavi, idolising current manager Guardiola during his own playing days.
Barca exposed United’s limitations, sure. They left the United fans muttering the odd complaint about certain aspects of their team; 37-year-old Ryan Giggs in the centre of midfield or the absences of Darren Fletcher or Dimitar Berbatov. But there was no real grief at the final whistle. Animosity and bitterness was inappropriate. All that was left was the realisation that the world might really be witnessing the best football team ever created.
Written by Daniel Caw