LONDON — With the fans at one end of Wembley Stadium singing and dancing, and those at the other sulking and leaving, the public-address announcer made the most obvious of proclamations: Barcelona was the winner of the Champions League.
The match’s result had been decided long before, about the time that Lionel Messi began his cat-and-mouse toying with Manchester United defenders, and certainly by the time that his go-ahead goal skipped past goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in the 54th minute.
Barcelona beat Manchester United, 3-1, staking claim to the most prestigious club title in the world, and fueling a historical debate about whether it is one of the best teams in soccer history.
Such a question was posed to Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson, who took control of his club in 1986 and began his coaching career more than a decade earlier.
“In my time as a manager, yes,” Ferguson said. “I’d say it’s the best team we’ve faced.”
It was Barcelona’s second title in three years, and more dominating than its 2-0 win over Manchester United in Rome in 2009.
The victory was not unexpected, although it pitted two clubs widely considered the best in the world. Barcelona, the champion of the Spanish League for three years in a row, was favored by oddsmakers and onlookers. But Manchester United, the proud juggernaut that recently won its record 19th English title, liked its chances in a one-match duel in its home country.
Yet Barcelona dominated with its usual panache. No team works better in cramped spaces. If the game were played in a closet or on a pool table, Barcelona would still find a way to keep the ball away from its opponent.
Barcelona found its footing after a few sloppy minutes, and settled into its brand of keepaway. By game’s end, Barcelona had held possession for 63 percent of the time. It had 12 on-target scoring attempts. Manchester United had one.
Barcelona had a few early chances, including one in which the playmaking midfielder Xavi Hernández punched the ball outside to Pedro Rodriguez, whose shot went wide. He did not miss the second time.
Xavi moved the ball straight upfield, as if it were attached to him by an invisible string, before lacing it wide to his right for Pedro again. His low punch, in the 27th minute, caught goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar — playing his final game — uncharacteristically flat-footed. A moment later, Van der Sar stood with his face in his hands.
The announced crowd of 87,695 sensed that it was witnessing something magical and historic. Manchester United fans were peculiarly quiet, as if resigned to the club’s fate as a foil to Barcelona’s legacy.
But Wayne Rooney unexpectedly reignited the passion, in the 34th minute, on a charge that began as an innocuous give-and-go along the right sideline. Rooney burst diagonally toward the goal, obstructed by nothing but open space, as Ryan Giggs settled in a spot to his right. Rooney tapped the ball to Giggs with the outside of his right foot, and Giggs, with a brief bobble, finessed a perfect return pass.
Rooney one-timed the ball into the left corner of the goal, well past goalkeeper Victor Valdes’s right shoulder, and turned to celebrate before the shot slapped the net. He ran and slid on his knees as United fans temporarily awakened from their worry.
It was a simple reprieve from an inevitable outcome. And it was Messi, named man of the match, who made sure Barcelona left with the championship it seemed to deserve.
Manchester United, unlike some Barcelona opponents, opted not to assign a defender to shadow the slippery Messi, the two-time world player of the year from Argentina.
In the 54th minute, with Barcelona lulling Manchester United with its passing, Messi found himself alone in the middle of the field. He moved quickly toward the goal and, just as defenders converged, sent a skipping shot to Van der Sar’s left. The goalkeeper could not corral what became Messi’s 12th goal in 13 Champions League games.
“They do mesmerize you with the passing, and we never truly controlled Messi,” Ferguson said. “But many people have said that.”
Messi, with his floppy hair and neon-green cleats, often trailed the play, letting the wings push United back and forcing defenders to drop back in the middle or stay with him. With Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, two of the world’s best midfielders, he formed a triumvirate of ball-controlling clinicians. The recipients of their dazzling array of moves often were the wings, Pedro and David Villa.
In one sequence, in the 69th minute, Messi faked out Nani — who had entered as a substitute moments before — near the right corner. Messi’s promising drive to the goal was ultimately thwarted, but the ball bounced back to midfielder Sergio Busquets, who slid it over to Villa. Van der Sar never had a chance. The ball curled past the imposing defender Rio Ferdinand and ripped into the upper corner of the net.
Barcelona led, 3-1, and the match took on the air of a coronation. Ferguson, resigned to falling short of his third European championship, sat glumly on the sideline, chewing gum. Barcelona Manager Pep Guardiola, who won the title as a Barcelona player in 1992 and as its coach two years ago, kept urging on his players from the sideline’s edge.
Barcelona’s French defender, Éric Adibal, was the first to lift the giant, two-handled championship trophy as fireworks shot from the giant arch over Wembley’s open top. Abidal had a growth on his liver removed in March, missed nearly two months and was a mild surprise to start the final.
As the cup was handed to Messi, the tireless Barcelona fans chanted his name and bowed in playful reverence.
Defender Gerard Piqué later cut one of the nets from its iron frame, then wore it downfield like a bride going down the church aisle. Barcelona players and club officials held hands and danced around the center circle until the stadium’s automatic sprinklers sprung from the turf and shot fountains of water. Undeterred, they played in the sprinklers, running toward their legion of fans and sliding on the grass.
Every move was wildly cheered, just as they had been throughout the game. And every move will be recounted, at least until a better team comes along.
“We would like, in 50, 60 years, people are reminded of this team as one of the best,” Guardiola said. “If this happens for us, it’s marvelous.” (source:nytimes.com)