Champions League Final: Reaction

Carlos the hedge Puyol holds ol big ears triumphantly aloft.

Carlos "the hedge" Puyol holds ol' big ears triumphantly aloft.

Well I have to say, the game itself perhaps wasn’t the classic that everyone had hoped for. It was entertaining, don’t get me wrong, and Barcelona certainly treated the millions of viewers around the world to some delightful football, but after Samuel Eto’o put the Catalan side ahead in the tenth minute the game effectively ended as a contest. United never quite got going and in the end it was won at a canter by Barcelona, who rightly earn the right to call themselves Europe’s best team.

It was strange though, in that United started so brightly. Cristiano Ronaldo was shooting from everywhere and looking dangerous and they were playing with the speed and intensity that we expect of them. However, once Iniesta got the ball, surged through the middle of the park and slipped Eto’o through to beat Ferdinand and poke past Van Der Saar, United never recovered. They were left reeling after Barca’s first attack left them a goal down and they never got back into their stride.

Naturally, Barcelona were delighted to get the early goal because it then allowed them to indulge at whim in the sort of patient possession football that they like best, not having to chase the game they were free to keep the ball at their leisure rather than having to risk exposing their makeshift back four by going in search of a goal. And eventually that patience paid off when shoddy marking from United left Messi, the shortest man on the pitch, to score a neat header and wrap up the game.

Yet going into the game, all the talk surrounded Barcelona’s weak defence and suggestions that they would not be able to cope with United’s attacking force. On the night though, that simply didn’t happen. Whether United’s players were very poor or Barca’s defenders were very good (or both), United never looked like scoring outside of those opening exchanges when Ronaldo was sending the ball swerving towards goal at every opportunity he got. Even these half chances though, were soon quashed by the excellent Busquets, Toure and Pique.

In contrast, United’s famous defence including Ferdinand and Vidic were pretty shambolic at times. That Xavi had the luxury of time and space on the edge of United’s box to pick out Messi for the second will infuriate Ferguson almost as much as the fact that Messi, near-midget that he is, was given a completely free header with Ferdinand and Vidic standing well off him. And the first goal was little better, a straight run from Iniesta and a rather telegraphed pass to Eto’o who simply ghosted inside as if no such things as defenders ever existed. It was far, far too easy for Barcelona.

With the United players looking so disjointed for so much of the game, naturally questions will be asked of Ferguson’s decision to play the kids against Hull at the weekend. Of course, we all expected him to do it and we all expected it to pay off, but it seems with hindsight that the move may have backfired, as though the players looked reasonably fresh, they also looked a little rusty, exactly as if they hadn’t played together for a week and a half, and in comparison to the perfectly oiled machine that is Barcelona at their best well… they never stood a chance.

Ultimately I do think it’s a shame that the ‘real’ Manchester united didn’t turn up. I saw enough in the first 10 minutes to know that a game between these two sides at their best would have been the awe-inspiring spectacle so many had hoped for, and I genuinely think that United at their best would probably beat Barcelona. Of course, that is the sort of speculation that means nothing because at the end of the day, the best team on the pitch was Barcelona by a country mile, and their win was completely and utterly deserved.

I will also take a moment though, to give some rare praise to Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not his biggest fan (in fact I’m no fan of his at all) but I will admit that he was the only United player to really look in the mood tonight. Their only threat, he also gave 110% for the entire game, throwing himself into challenges and fighting for the cause while those around him wilted.

Still, I had to laugh when Puyol blatantly made the most of a tackle from Ronaldo and the Portuguese international had the cheek to look at him with disgust. Perhaps being on the receiving end of such cheating will teach him a lesson, but i have to say I doubt it. Overall though, I think Ronaldo really did stand up and be counted in a big game tonight, which he hasn’t necessarily managed before, and Ferguson will lament the fact that no one else joined him in the fight, because had they done so, the outcome could have been drastically different.

However, if Ronaldo is genuinely valued at £75m or whatever insane amount of money that is filling the gossip columns these days, the question must be asked: what price for Iniesta? Of course, without his co-conspirator Xavi he may be less effective as they are the most natural pairing of footballers I think I have ever seen. Their sheer telepathy is outstanding and the indivdual class of each player just phenomenal.

And while he wasn’t at his most lively, Leo Messi at least proved that he can do the business against English opposition, with some tormenting runs that often saw him brought down by a frankly confused Manchester United defence, and fair enough, how the ball stays so close to his feet is one of the great mysteries of the universe. He also finally broke his duck against English opposition with a fine header, and secured his honour as the top scorer of the Champions League this season.

Overall then, the Champions League final perhaps didn’t quite live up to its billing but then, was it ever going to? It was still a good contest, though it is a shame for the neutrals that Man Utd didn’t make more of it, though there’ll be no complaints in Catalunya. And ultimately, it was a worthy side that ascended to the throne of European football for the year and the question is now, can Pep Guardiola do what Ferguson could not, and lead his side into the history books by becoming the first team to successfully defend the Champions League trophy? He’s already matched Sir Al’s treble, so don’t bet against it…

Ps. I also wrote an article on the Champions League final and its connotations for the overall standing of European football for Salient today. The magazine will be available both in print and online on Monday, so feel free to pick up a copy, or follow the link that I will inevtiably post from this site then. Cheers for reading everyone.

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