Barely any fight

Samuel Eto’o (extreme right), beats Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der sar to score Barcelona’s opening goal.-AP Samuel Eto’o (extreme right), beats Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der sar to score Barcelona’s opening goal.

It is odd to realise that Manchester United may prefer to forget a campaign in which they won the Club World Cup, the League Cup and, crucially, a third consecutive Premier League title. Their standards are high but in the Champions League final against Barcelona they met opponents who produced celestial football, writes Kevin McCarra.

The feathery touch of Barcelona left Manchester United bruised and beaten. It is as well that the victors’ good taste extended to winning by a modest margin. The holders were relieved of the European Cup and must take what comfort there is in the appreciation that there is no shame in being outclassed. They could barely engage with Pep Guardiola’s side, let alone menace them.

Sir Alex Ferguson finds himself outdone by the rookie in the other dug-out but everyone else who has contended for prizes this season has suffered the same experience against Barcelona. The United manager, in the midst of dejection, has always known how to learn and regroup. It will be quite a conundrum, all the same, to decide what to do when Andres Iniesta and Xavi are in the opposing midfield.

United coped with them last season but Guardiola has brought a dynamism of mind and body that has hoisted Barcelona to another level. At times there was embarrassment for the losers. The substitute Paul Scholes, for instance, hurtled into one of his reckless two-footed tackles and ought to have been dismissed by the referee, Massimo Busacca, who settled for a caution.

Perhaps he reckoned that United, destined to defeat by then, had suffered enough. This is the first defeat the club have experienced in a final of a major European tournament.

Few would have envisaged that Barcelona could achieve such impact with one specific attribute. Giving the ball to a team-mate was a trick that United could not counter. There was beauty, too, in the constantly shifting geometry as team-mates linked.

For prolonged periods the resilience of a makeshift Barcelona back four was as speculative a question as medieval debates about the number of angels that might dance on the head of a pin. It had no bearing on reality. Barcelona’s defence did sway intermittently but it was never asked to come through an onslaught.

Every topic leads to an examination of the midfield rout of United. It could be said that Michael Carrick’s reputation was pummelled but he was abandoned almost entirely by ineffectual colleagues such as Anderson.

The experience was so distressing for United that they abandoned the principle of restraint that has underpinned a resurgence over the past three years.

Carlos Tevez was introduced at the interval, with Dimitar Berbatov to follow, but the Barcelona problem could not be solved by throwing forwards at it. All the English certainties were stripped away in Rome.

Premier League full-backs have been a nemesis for Lionel Messi but he did rather well here even before he notched the second goal. That match-clinching moment must have been sweet.

How often, after all, does the little winger leap to a deep cross, as he did for Xavi’s delivery in the 70th minute, and head back across the target to find the net?

As a fringe benefit, it was also his first goal against an English team in a Champions League fixture after 10 prior blanks.

This could have been a rout to rank with Milan’s drubbing of Barcelona in the 1994 final.

After all, Thierry Henry had an opportunity to score in the second-half and Xavi also hit a post with a free-kick around that time. If United reeled, it may have been because they never got over the disappearance of an early, transient control.

The holders’ initial assertiveness was exactly as anticipated, particularly since there was an urgent desire to examine a Barcelona defence recast following the suspensions for Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves as well as Rafael Marquez’s injury.

Yaya Toure, a holding midfielder, pressganged into centre-back, hinted at his shortcomings as he body-checked Anderson in bewilderment after a minute.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick was blocked tentatively by Victor Valdes and had to be hacked away for a corner. Barcelona were barely disturbed and crafted a goal.

With 10 minutes gone, it was elementary for the hypnotic Iniesta to run free of Anderson and Carrick before picking out Samuel Eto’o. The striker’s run mesmerised Nemanja Vidic and the Cameroonian was clear on the right. The angle was unfavourable but Edwin van der Sar could not keep out the shot at the near post.

United never recovered. Inevitably there will be discussion over whether Rio Ferdinand, who had last played more than three weeks earlier, was truly in condition after injury. There were, all the same, broader issues to ponder.

The most that could be said for United is that they did not give up easily. Immediately after Messi’s goal, for instance, Ronaldo had a half-chance in a scramble around the six-yard box. Maybe the randomness of that opening also indicated that Ferguson’s team were reduced to praying for a break.

Turning the tide was beyond United as Barcelona swept over them. Fabio Capello’s contention that tiredness would not be a factor was a remark about the weather but the opposition were a different kind of natural force, one that does take an inexorable toll. The exhaustion of the losers was evident well before the close.

It is odd to realise that United may now prefer to forget a campaign in which they won the Club World Cup, the League Cup and, crucially, a third consecutive Premier League title. Their standards are high but in Rome they met opponents who produced celestial football.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009