Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United is part of 90min’s 20 Greatest Matches of the Decade series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next few weeks.
?”Fasten your seatbelts, we’re going on a fun ride.”
Those were the words of Pep Guardiola during his unveiling as Barcelona first-team head coach at Camp Nou in August 2008.
It is a promise that was unequivocally delivered on as, over the next four years, ?Barcelona became quite possibly the greatest club side the world has ever seen; not only demolishing all before them but doing so with a brilliance and grace that redefined standards in modern football.
What’s more, they conquered the world with a spine of academy kids, local boys brought through La Masia, who cost nothing in transfer fees but provided an unparalleled connection between the fans and the club in a way that has seemingly been lost in the last 30 years of an increasingly globalised and commercialised sport. They even did it all with a charity emblazoned across their kit instead of a corporate sponsor, for God’s sake.
The crowning moment, the peak of Guardiola’s ‘fun’ rollercoaster, came at Wembley on 28 May 2011, as Barcelona took on ?Manchester United in the Champions League final, the second time the two European colossi had met in the fixture in three years.
These were, without much argument, the best two teams in Europe, but the game – played out in the orange-tinted dusk at England’s home of football – was a jarring mismatch.
One year before, eight of Barcelona’s squad (six of their starting lineup against United) won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with Spain. Barça’s team were, for all intents and purposes, the world champions – only with the greatest player of all time in Lionel Messi, the world’s preeminent attacking right-back, Dani Alves, and Argentina’s captain Javier Mascherano thrown into the mix.
Prior to the 2009 Champions League final in Rome – which United lost 2-0 – wary of the threat of Barça’s revolutionary tiki-taka football led by sickly-looking street magicians Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, the Red Devils’ legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson warned: “They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing.”
Pep’s ride was not fun for everyone.
“I didn’t agree [with our tactics]. I voiced my opinion, but at the time you’re confident in a man like Alex Ferguson,” United defender Rio Ferdinand recently told BT Sport, regarding his side’s tactics for the 2011 final.
“I said pressing them was going to be difficult, it’s hard. They did us in Rome. In that midfield in Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, they probably had three of the top six players in the world.”
Barcelona did indeed make United dizzy again in 2011, with the Catalan side controlling near 70% of the possession in the first half and taking the lead after Pedro – king of goals in finals – slid into the bottom corner from an exacting Xavi through ball.
Co-commentating on ITV, Andy Townsend remarked that Barcelona “aren’t that quick or that slick. There’s [just] too much room for top players.”
This was Barcelona at their flowing best. Xavi – dictating midfield on the night with subtle movement and mastery of deception – was less Der Kaiser and more Keyser Soze.
He and Iniesta always had room to operate, to pass or to find a shot. Their trick was to make it all look easy, like the opposition was failing to do the basics, when in reality they were performing at their geometric, ever-shifting best.
United equalised before half time as Wayne Rooney thundered in from the edge of the area, but there was a sense of inevitability to proceedings.
After the break, Barça continued in relentless fashion, pummelling Edwin van der Sar with shots, before a beardless, shaggy-haired, largely tattoo-free Messi rifled in from 20 yards on 54 minutes, after picking up the ball unchallenged – it was the Messi goal.
The knockout blow then came 15 minutes later as David Villa, the sniper with the sideburns and soul patch, curled one into the top corner past a hyperextended Van der Sar.
Guardiola, besuited on the touchline wearing the taut half-wince of a man expecting a balloon to be popped at any moment, broke into fist-pumping celebrations, growing more relaxed by the minute.
United fought back earnestly but were chasing shadows as their inferiority told. Sir Alex’s team, with greats of the game like Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Van der Sar and Ferdinand were at the end of their own ride, powerless in watching on as Barça continued their ascension.
According to Andres Iniesta’s autobiography The Artist: Being Iniesta, Rooney approached Xavi around the 80-minute mark and said, “That’s enough. You’ve won. You can stop playing the ball around now.”
From the United side that day, only Patrice Evra ever played in another Champions League final.
On the final whistle, Ferguson patted Guardiola on the back firmly and allowed himself a wry smile in defeat.
“They do mesmerise you with the way they pass it,” the Scot said after the game. “They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that.
“No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”
Centre-back Gerard Pique, once of Manchester United, brought out a pair of scissors and cut down the Wembley goal nets as mementoes, carrying them across the pitch with a medal around his neck like a sort of heroic fisherman.
Left-back Eric Abidal, who played the entire 90 minutes despite having had a cancerous tumour removed from his liver just months earlier, was invited to lift the trophy by captain Carles Puyol in an emotional moment for the club on its perfect night.
After perfection, however, there’s only really one way to go.
Ferguson, perhaps desperate to land one dig on the seemingly untouchable opponent, turned prophetic in his post-match comments.
“But how long it lasts,” he said. “Whether they can replace that team at some point. They certainly have the right philosophy, but it’s always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time.”
Eight years on, Barça are still trying to recapture that magic, as the old ways calcify and philosophies become murky and compromised in pursuit of success.
“If he’s [Guardiola’s] really considering that [leaving Barcelona], he’ll never have this experience again, that’s for sure,” Ferguson added knowingly.
2011 was the hiding that Sir Alex had never had before. It was also the culmination of a ride of near-perfect football that set unattainable expectations which the club, and sport, are still failing to live up to.
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