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How can Barcelona fail with the enchanting genius Lionel Messi at their heart?
Published : 29 May 2011 03:29:31
ShareAs the men of Manchester staggered away from Wembley, with legs heavy and minds muddled, their conquerors accepted the acclaim of a continent. They bowed and they beamed with sheer pleasure, knowing they had achieved something stunning, revelling in the glory of an enchanted evening. In the entire history of this beautiful game, few teams have ever approached the state of perfection which FC Barcelona enjoyed in this European final. In recent years they had promised to deliver the ultimate performance, the one which would lift them beyond compare. That performance was delivered. From a gallery of captivating images, the one which will cling to the memory is of a little man stumbling down a flight of steps, a smile splitting his face and a huge silver pot balanced on his head. Lionel Messi's mischief was done, his place in the pantheon secure. And if Barcelona had only Messi to offer, then they would indeed be lavishly equipped. Pure magic: Lionel Messi gets to grips with Old Big Ears once more But they have so much more; the cerebral Andres Iniesta, the blissfully skilled Xavi, the eternally combative Javier Mascherano and the sinuously sniping David Villa.They are wondrously blessed with wit, touch and vision and, last night, all their gifts came together in irresistible abundance. Their margin of victory did little to reflect their superiority and nothing to flatter them. And the generous tribute which Sir Alex Ferguson offered Pep Guardiola at the final whistle smacked not only of congratulation but also of exhausted concession. United had poured heart, soul and sweat into their attempt to climb Europe's highest mountain but, on this glittering evening, it was an achievement to escape without humiliation. For Barcelona were playing a game they might have invented. Their movement was sublime, their imagination unbounded. Stripped to its essentials, their method is one of pure simplicity: pass, move, search for space and pass again. But it was the speed, the urgency and the beguiling audacity of it all which took the breath away. It was an honour to watch players flirt so dramatically with perfection; their attainment matching the scope of their ambition. United are conscious of their own cherished tradition, of their obligation to play in the creative fashion which Ferguson teaches and which Sir Matt Busby would readily recognise. In truth, it was that awareness which generated the civilised atmosphere which had prevailed in the preliminaries. Leading a merry dance: Messi and Barcelona continue the party on the Wembley pitch Both managers were sensibly aware of the potential passions and both expressed genuine respect. Mercifully, there was no Jose Mourinho to poison the waters. And United began in the only manner open to them; scuttling through the prevailing bedlam, making challenges, forcing errors, pressing furiously. Yet even as Barcelona stuttered for a few minutes, there was always a sense a rhythm was waiting to be found, that all that flamboyant expression could not long be stifled. As they sought their line and length, there was a sense that we were about to witness the new Wembley coming of age. Great stadiums are defined by the soaring deeds and there was enough purpose in Barcelona's approach to suggest such deeds were waiting to unfold. Guardiola's men believe passing and movement will open every door and a brisk normality descended. They heralded their merging control with an intricate onslaught of improbable angles and shrewdly played passes to contrive a chance for Pedro. It seemed to settle them, to reinforce their convictions and, from there on, the show began. Messi started to work his small miracles and the frustration started to seep into United's soul. Inexorably, momentum built. Ferguson's side were having to solve problem after problem, knowing a wrong answer could cost them everything. And then the inevitable overtook them. Mesmerised: Time seems to stand still as Messi fires Barca 2-1 up Such was the ceaseless deception of Barcelona's attack we knew that, sooner or later, a man would be left ominously spare. True, it took a glorious piece of insight from Xavi, smoothing a pass to his right where Pedro lurked, unattended. Scorning anything so basic as a shot, he simply passed the ball beyond Edwin van der Sar's near post. Shoulders never fell, since that is not United's way, but there was a genuine sense of impending doom. Hence the astonishment when equality was quickly achieved. So unlikely was the goal that even Ferguson seemed stunned. There was an interception by Rio Ferdinand on the touchline, Wayne Rooney came into the confusion and played a short exchange of passes with Ryan Giggs. Then the shot; coldly delivered, passionately celebrated. Just when the match was moving beyond them, United had amended the script. Barcelona treated it as an irritant, an irksome smudge on a pleasing portrait. For they believe in their methods, believe that the game is better than muscular dullards could ever comprehend, believe that even a side as capable as Manchester United may be reduced by the force of their free-wheeling football. And they were right. They carried on passing, running and gambling and it all started to make entrancing sense. Of course, they were assisted by United's curious decision to stand off Messi and allow him to chance his luck with a 20-yard drive and Van der Sar might have done better with the attempt. But a lead was the least their excellence deserved. The third, conclusive, goal said everything about their nerve and enduring class. Messi's infiltration, Nani's error, Villa's appreciation of the chance and the short, controlled, curling chip high into United's net. United battled through with the terrible knowledge that their cause was hopeless, knowing, too, that defeat by such a side was scarcely a disgrace. Barcelona enjoyed the sum of their own gleeful talents, enjoyed the glittering victory, enjoyed the euphoria of the unforgettable moment. And the rest of the football world looked on in awe and wonder. And paid heartfelt homage to Catalonia. Messi the magician: Sir Alex hails Barcelona as 'the best we've ever played'Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1: Pedro, Lionel Messi and David Villa crown Barca kings of EuropeSo, how were Manchester United outgunned? Fergie gameplan torn up by brilliant BarcaBarcelona v Manchester United - the TV battle: Chiles play is at odds with Tyler's classUnited legends Neville and Keane pour praise onto 'brilliant' BarcelonaIt's a snip for Pique as he nets a Wembley mementoAll the latest Manchester United news, features and opinion Explore more:People: Alex Ferguson, Matt Busby, David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Xavi, Javier Mascherano, Edwin Van Der Sar, Jose Mourinho, Nani, Lionel Messi Places: Barcelona, Manchester, Europe