When you watch a match between two teams that you loathe, you realise just how tough being a neutral really is. Both United and Barcelona get hateful passions a burnin’ in me and it was quite tough for me to decide which contingent to make silly faces at. In the end, I came to two startling conclusions. One, that it didn’t matter which side I made silly faces at because my face was, in fact, perennially silly. Two, that if two of your most hated teams duke it out, then the best hope you have of happiness post-match is a Godzilla attack if the deserving team wins. And going by that logic, I am serenely content at the moment because Barcelona fully, completely, unequivocally deserved their victory.
Now the widely held opinion that this match was eerily similar to the final two years ago is not entirely incorrect. Barcelona had a makeshift back four again with Mascherano filling in at centre back and Puyol being left on the bench. Man United started brightly again, the first ten minutes seeing Barca pinned down in their half for most of the time. The template to employ against Barcelona is press and press religiously, and United certainly did that in the opening stages and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of the match as well. Van der Sar released Rooney with a well-aimed goal kick in the seventh minute and Valdes had to stay alert and punch it away before the striker got his head onto it.
But the similarity with two years prior was stubborn in its persistence. Barcelona shook off whatever minor cobwebs had settled during their two-week break and started playing like a team would play in FIFA 11, if it had cheat codes. I had seen this sort of carousel passing annihilate Arsenal two years running, and the various geometrical figures the Barcelona passes were making in the middle of the park were therefore familiar to me. Only now I could truly appreciate their beauty, deceptive simplicity and tendency to hypnotise.
The shooting boots took a little while to get strapped on though. Pedro missed a great chance from a Xavi cross early on, following which Villa tried a snapshot from range that went wide. Van der Sar saved from another Villa effort after a beautifully fluid move.
But it was only a matter of time. Xavi gave an absolutely delightful no-look pass to Pedro, there was a *STRAP* as the Velcro on the shooting boots finally fell into place, and he slid it into the bottom corner. The keeper was possibly at fault with some misjudgement of angles, but I would prefer to look at it as a fine finish.
But then came, as some patronising commentators would like to put it, a Barcelona goal from Manchester United. The ball was won back from a Barca throw-in, Rooney and Carrick interchanged passes and the ugly gob ran forward with the ball in one of United’s rare forays into the opposition box. He slipped it in to Giggs (who was borderline offside but I don’t like to nitpick with borderline cases, I would have given the goal), Giggs drew three Barca defenders towards him and slipped it back for United’s pumpkin-headed number ten to sweep home. Excellent equaliser, and the end of a first half that went by like a breeze.
At that time, I think most people would have expected the second half to be more evenly matched and not the massively one-sided affair it turned out to be. United looked like they had been sent out to face a headstrong platoon of Panzers with a smattering of toothpicks and a Minute Maid bottle. Some dizzying passes resulted in Alves finding himself one-on-one with the keeper. VDS saved the shot and Evra headed over Messi’s rebound. Then Barca took the lead, Messi going on a pattering run from the middle and lashing a shot in from outside the box (I would look at this as Messi’s goal instead of VDS’s mistake, again. The shot was fiercely struck with very little backlift, it was far from a bread-and-butter stop for the Dutchman) And the rest of the half was like a tape on repeat really.
Off the top of my head, I remember a Messi back-heel cleared off the line, a stinging shot by Xavi that was superbly saved and some more ambitious tries. Whereas there was only a tame Nani shot that went well wide in reply. Oh, and I think there was a Villa tap-in mixed in the middle somewhere.
Do I hear cries of ‘Player ratings! Player ratings!’ emanating from the milling crowd of readers? Well, have at it then-
Edwin van der Sar: A damp squib of an ending after what has been a great career for the likable giant. Like I said, I wouldn’t blame him for either of the first two goals; they were great strokes more than poor goalkeeping. Aside from that, made lots of crucial saves to keep the score-line mildly respectable. 7/10
Fabio: Played decently well under lots of Barcelona pressure. Looked comfortable going forward with the ball. But it didn’t help that United went forward with the ball roughly five times the entire match. 6/10
Rio Ferdinand: Was good in the first half, made one crunching challenge that would have led to a goal-scoring opportunity otherwise. But was blown away in the second forty-five when the tanks came rolling out. 6/10
Nemanja Vidic: Ditto. Made a few excellent tackles in the first half but Barca’s passing just proved too quick over the long run. United’s defence never looked like keeping a clean sheet in spite of average individual performances. 6.5/10
Patrice McBigmouth: Probably the reason why United never looked like keeping a clean sheet. Was a galumphing oaf with two left feet during the match, partially at fault for at least two of the goals. Needs to shape up before next year’s final, because according to him United are obviously going to be there again. 4/10
Ryan Giggs: Great player, legend etc. but was out of his depth on the pitch. Not through any fault of his own, but playing in midfield against Barcelona does require the legs of someone younger than thirty seven. Looked as lost and confused as some of the lice on his chest hair must undoubtedly feel. 5.5/10
Michael Carrick: Tried, but came up short. United needed Fletcher in this match. 5/10
Ji Sung Park: Ran. 5/10
Luis Antonio Valencia: Looked like he had been sent to do a hatchet job on Messi. If so, he was moderately successful for the opening stages of the match. Hardly contributed anything to the attack though, and was lucky not to be sent off twice. 5.5/10
Wayne Rooney: Had a good match. Showed drive, determination and all that rot, and finished off a sweet move with a good goal. Has enjoyed a fine second half of the season and looks to be getting better, which is ominous for other teams. 7/10
Javier Hernandez: Showed a tendency to be offside of Adebayoresque proportions. Very poor showing, didn’t look as if he wanted to be there. 4.5/10
Victor Valdes: Can I get a job as Barcelona keeper? Made one punch in the seventh minute and then made the goal net into a hammock to lounge on. Rating is immaterial, 6.5/10 I guess.
Dani Alves: His energy and countless runs down the right hand side are as admirable as his crossing is awful. Dominated his wing however, pegged back the United winger through his attacks. An asset to their team without a doubt. 7.5/10
Javier Mascherano: The subject of much pre-match discussion as to whether he would be the weak-link in Barca’s defence. Handled everything that came his way with practiced ease however, read the game well. 7/10
Gerard Pique: Is one of the best sorts of centre back to have in your team. Good positioning, heading ability and can pass the ball better than a lot of midfielders. Handled the United threat well. 7.5/10
Eric Abidal: Major props. From fighting cancer to lifting the Champions League. And he had a brilliant game, completely shut out all United attacks from his side. 8/10
Xavi: Barcelona’s magician and conductor. No matter how many times you see them, the numbers seem astounding. In the first half, Xavi made 79 passes, 58 more than any Manchester United player. His passing stats from the game are like something from another planet. Here they are-
Will be credited with an assist, but deserves to be credited with much more. 9/10
Iniesta: The very competent Watson to Xavi’s Sherlock Holmes. Was always open for a pass and played a major part in Barca’s dominance of proceedings. Assist for the second goal. 8.5/10
Sergio Busquets: Quite an irritating player from a neutral’s point of view with his theatrics and dovetailing on the pitch. But had a great game sans any Oscar performances. Simple and effective passes, deft touches and an assist for the third goal. 8.5/10
Lionel Messi: Not a bad player, eh? Made the decoy run for the first goal, scored the second and went on a mesmerising run that led to the third. The diminutive Argentine gets a 10/10, two stars and a string of XoXoXo’s.
David Villa: Scored a cracker of a third. Apart from that, combined very well with Messi, constantly interchanging positions and making life difficult for the United back four. 8/10
Pedro Rodriguez: Scored the first with a cool finish, combined well with Alves and was always a threat. More of a team player than Henry or Eto’o and Barca are reaping the benefits. 8.5/10
So it’s all finished then. No more football for two months. Is the League Two playoff final left?