Barca rule beautiful game

Champions League: Messi, Xavi dazzle as Spanish giants outclass Man United

More important than victory was the message that, when left to players, this most global game can still be what many dream it to be.

On Sunday in Zurich, the discredited officials of FIFA met their judge to answer to charges that they had corrupted the game they are supposed to serve.

Forget them while we can. At Wembley stadium on Saturday, Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta truly earned their fortune.

Gifted men, of course, but beyond that men who in years to come will be remembered among the greats.

Manchester United was not at all bad, its competitiveness on display in the bodies of Park Ji-sung, Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney.

It is not their fault that they met a better team on the biggest stage. It was not for want of trying that they fell a hurdle short of adding the Champions League trophy to the English Premier League title they won this month.

If statistics tell a story, the fact that Barcelona monopolized almost 70 percent of possession and fired off 22 shots to United’s four does the trick. But since when was sports simply a question of math? UEFA chose Messi as the man of this match. I preferred Xavi because, apart from the opening quarter of an hour, he was the heart and soul of Barcelona’s superiority. He seemed to be everywhere, snuffing out danger with a sixth-sense perception, rolling out the passes that define Barcelona’s rhythm, seeking out the best team-mate in the best positions to exploit gaps.

The result was similar to Rome, where, two years ago in the Stadio Olimpico, Barcelona beat United, 2-0, in the final. This however, was a finer performance. Several Barcelona players had observed that, since United sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a record sum of 80 million pounds ($131 million), it has become a better team.

The emphasis on the word team means no disrespect to Ronaldo; rather it suggests that United has less of a superstar, and is therefore less predictable to counter. The opening goal Saturday showed why Xavi is the playmaker of the world’s best team. He advanced toward United’s back line, at his own pace, in his own time. He glanced left, looked right and, deciding that Pedro Rodriguez was making the most positive forward movement, rolled the ball to Pedro’s feet.

One touch of Pedro’s right foot controlled the ball. The second touch struck it low across the immaculate turf of Wembley, beyond the reach of United’s 40-year-old goalie, Edwin van der Sar.

Van der Sar is retiring after this season, but it seemed almost cruel for Barça to work him with shots that stretched every sinew in the Dutchman’s long, lean frame. By contrast, the Barcelona goalkeeper, Victor Valdes, never made a save. He was beaten by the sweet venom of a Rooney shot in the 34th minute, but if we thought this a fierce strike of the ball, something extraordinarily more powerful was to come.

Messi is the top scorer in this season’s Champions League, and his 12th goal in 13 matches showed exactly why. He had played deeper than usual, perhaps because United obliged him to go back to find his own space. But in the 54th minute what can only be described as a controlled explosion of his art restored Barcelona’s lead.

He was outside the penalty area, plumb center, when he hit the ball so suddenly that not even a player of Van der Sar’s experience could anticipate it. It fizzed past Van der Sar, entering the net with a force that seems incongruous given that Messi is as light and small as a bantamweight.

The answer is in the timing: Messi, either through instinct or years of practice, simply unleashed his brilliance and quieted those who doubted whether there was still great virtue in soccer.

The third goal, conjured by Messi’s quicksilver feet as he dodged past a startled Nani, was a gift for David Villa. For months, Villa has appeared dejected by his inability to score. Villa, who holds Spain’s career national team scoring record, he even had some Catalans doubting his ability.

In fabulous fashion, Villa reminded everyone that form is temporary, class is permanent. He did not blast the ball, he caressed it, guided it into the top corner of the goal.

If Xavi mastered every situation, if Messi showed his genius in small slices, and if Villa rediscovered his quality, there were still more important reasons unfolding in this match.

There was the contest between Eric Abidal, Barcelona’s defender, and Antonio Valencia, the Ecuadorean winger of Manchester. For both men even to start this final was testimony to successful recoveries -- in Abidal’s case after having a tumor on his liver removed in March. Valencia had an operation in October to repair a broken and dislocated ankle.

Both players lasted the full 90 minutes Saturday. At the end, the United manager, Alex Ferguson, laid a paternal hand on the shoulder of Barça’s manager, Pep Guardiola. In time, Guardiola could replace Ferguson in the job he has so far occupied for 25 years. Real soccer men, unlike the officials who went before the judges on Sunday.

DH Newsletter Privacy Policy Get top news in your inbox daily
GET IT
Comments (+)