The best man wins

Published : Jun 06, 2009 00:00 IST

The battle of the world’s best players was won convincingly by Barcelona’s playmaker and one of the goalscorers on the night, Lionel Messi. By Richard Williams.

There were many fine sights to be witnessed on the night when the Three Amigos proved too good for the Fab Four, not least among them that of Gerard Piqué, unwanted at Old Trafford last summer but a pillar of Barcelona’s defence in Rome, sharing a warm post-match embrace with every member of Manchester United’s playing and backroom staff, and of a majority of the English club’s fans staying on after the final whistle to applaud their bitterly disappo inted representatives.

Until Lionel Messi found an acre of space between John O’Shea and Rio Ferdinand in which to score Barcelona’s second goal, a tiny figure meeting a wickedly accurate diagonal ball from the impeccable Xavi Hernandez with the neatest of far-post headers, United and their supporters had refused to give up believing that the seemingly impossible could happen once again.

Against Bayern Munich in 1999 they had been losing 1-0 without a midfield to speak of, just as they were for an hour on the night of May 27, yet came through with a last-minute miracle. But there would be no such reprieve this time because Barcelona were just too good to let it happen. So the Catalan club go level with United on three wins in this great competition and Ferguson must wait for another chance to catch Ajax and Bayern.

“I want my players to feel like they’re playing in front of the whole world,” Josep Guardiola had said 24 hours earlier. “I want them to be daring.” And so indeed they were, giving their 38-year-old manager a second European Cup winner’s medal to go with the one acquired as a player in the club’s colours at Wembley 17 years ago.

This was a much better performance by Barcelona — better, too, than the one good enough to account for Arsenal in Paris three years ago. After they had withstood United’s brave early fusillade and struck back with Samuel Eto’o’s ninth-minute goal, their midfield players established the game’s prevailing rhythm with a patience and an accuracy that offered an object lesson in sophisticated control.

Billed as a contest between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the two men vying for the title of the world’s best player, it turned into a showcase for football as a team game. Where Guardiola’s men conserved possession and made progress with unselfish zeal, United failed to match their own expectations in every department.

Once the stage had been set for the 24-year-old from the island of Madeira and the 21-year-old from Che Guevara’s home town, it was almost inevitable that it would be a three-time African player of the year who struck the first blow. But every camera was on Ronaldo and Messi, star wingers redeployed in recent weeks, in a curious example of managerial unanimity, in the role of centre-forward, and they would not be overshadowed.

Less than 90 seconds had gone when Ronaldo found himself trying a 35-yard free-kick from exactly the range and angle with which he had belted the ball past Tomasz Kuszczak, United’s reserve goalkeeper, with his last kick of the warm-up. This time his stabbed effort bounced just in front of Victor Valdes and rebounded off the goalkeeper, Pique making the first of his interventions to stop Park Ji-sung prodding in the rebound.

“I don’t expect to see a defensive Manchester, or a Manchester that relies only on counter-attacks,” Guardiola had said on the eve of the match and Ferguson’s men tore into the contest as though determined to write themselves into legend in the manner of their predecessors of 1968, until they were jolted by Eto’o’s intervention. Messi, anonymous in the opening exchanges, gradually found his way into the game. He had already drawn a number of fouls from United’s midfielders when, on the stroke of half-time, he skipped past Michael Carrick and O’Shea down the left, accelerated smoothly away on the outside of Ferdinand and hit a low cross with his weaker left foot that Edwin van der Sar could not gather, forcing Nemanja Vidic into a scruffy clearance.

On the hour the balance shifted and United, for the first time since Eto’o’s strike, gained the initiative. Once again they were to be abruptly rocked back, this time when Messi re-emerged from a period of anonymity to double Barcelona’s lead in the most unlikely of ways.

Ronaldo, lucky not to receive a yellow card for a two-footed tackle on Carles Puyol five minutes after that second goal, went into the referee’s book a few minutes later for bundling the same opponent over. Ferguson’s players were suffering from frustration and Paul Scholes, going in late on Sergio Busquets, was fortunate not to suffer a worse disciplinary fate barely five minutes after coming on as the third of Ferguson’s substitutes.

If Barcelona’s victory was achieved with a collective version of the modest, diligent brilliance that characterises Messi’s play, United’s defeat ended with outbreaks of the sort of petulance associated with the behaviour of their current world player of the year. A harsh verdict, perhaps, on a side that never stopped trying, but such was the extent to which the winners’ superiority had driven them to distraction.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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