Posted by: mdegeorge | May 28, 2011

Barcelona dominate past and present in Champions League triumph

Trite and simplistic as it may seem, it’s difficult not to color Barcelona and Manchester United in generational terms. It’s not as crude as a passing of the torch; surely a contingent of players with three UEFA Champions League titles, the Spanish members of which also point to a European Championship and World Cup title in their trophy cases, is already firmly in possession of the standard of the game.

But if not a shift, it was at least a statement of dominance yet again. How could there not be such emphasis, as two players who’ll turn 24 in the next two months beat a 40-year-old goalkeeper playing his last competitive game? Or as midfielders aged 37 and 36 got dominated in possession to the tune of a 67-33 margin?

For 90 minutes at Wembley, Barcelona managed to encapsulate the greatness of a season whose virtuosity stands among the best teams the sport has ever known in a 3-1 domination of Manchester United to win its third Champions League title in six seasons.

Lionel Messi proved yet again why he is the greatest player in the world, bagging the match-winner and his mind-blowing 53rd goal of the season after Pedro opened the scoring and before a sublime insurance tally from David Villa.

Man U just wasn’t on Barcelona’s level Saturday. Michael Carrick struggled in the midfield. Antonio Valencia (a questionable starter over Nani) was late into every challenge. And for all the work done by Ji-Sung Park and Ryan Giggs, they were powerless when it came to maintaining even a modicum of possession.

They were pried open again and again by the short passing and rhythmic movements of Barcelona’s attack. So adept were the motions of the Blaugrana that they overshadowed an average day by usually menacing fullback Dani Alves and a shaky start by deputizing central defender Javier Mascherano. With 22 shots, 12 of which found the goal, Manchester United are fortunate the scoreline wasn’t more lopsided, as only a few bright moments from outgoing goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar kept threatening long-distance efforts from the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi from bulging the net.

Wayne Rooney did have a goal and was able to create a few other half chances he couldn’t convert, but his strike partner Javier Hernandez was a non-factor, drifting along the forward line.

It begs the question whether Sir Alex Ferguson, a veteran long suspected to be near the end of his career, erred by putting his faith in the youngster to the degree that he felt Dimitar Berbatov wasn’t need on the bench as a contingency. The lack of another option up front, other than the supposedly better positioned Michael Owen, especially one capable of flagging down long balls played up front and keeping that elusive possession, hurt the Red Devils and left them without an answer when the deficit widened and desperation grew. It left Man U fans invoking the names of Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the pair of super subs of yesteryear whose stoppage time goals clinched the 1999 final against Bayern Munich (which, in the name of symmetry, was played at none other than Barcelona’s Nou Camp).

But the Red Devils weren’t the ones able to conjure up memories of the past to their benefit. That honor, as did all the others on the day, went to Barcelona. They manifested themselves in a second-straight win for Barca over the Mancunians in a Champions League final, nearly a carbon copy of a 2-0 triumph — another in which Messi and Xavi shared man-of-the-match honors — at Roma’s Stadio Olimpico in 2009 where the Spanish champions put hardly a foot wrong in dictating the pace and style of play.

They went to Pep Guardiola who won a second Champions League title in three years as a manager, lifting the title on the same ground at which he won the 1992 European Cup as a player, a coach who was part of Johan Cruyff’s dream team, to which the current squad inevitably bares comparison. The script played out to the smallest detail, with Guardiola even bringing on injured captain, Spaniard and central defender Carlos Puyol for the game’s waning minutes, just as Guardiola himself had been withdrawn for then-injured captain, Spaniard and central defender Jose Ramon Alexanko in the final minutes of extra time in the 1992 triumph over Sampdoria.

The stars of past and present aligned for Barcelona at Wembley Saturday. It’s now their turn to go down in history.

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