Breaking down Barcelona's win
As many had predicted, Barcelona outclassed Manchester United in Saturday's highly anticipated Champions League final, running out to a 3-1 win. And as many had hoped for, it was a game for the ages. Stylistically, technically and tactically, it was perhaps the best title game in recent memory. And perhaps the best game in all the memory that's been lost since then, too.
In spite of heavy speculation that ageless United manager Sir Alex Ferguson would be throwing a tactical wrinkle at his counterpart, boy wonder Pep Guardiola, he fielded his usual 4-4-2 setup with Wayne Rooney playing in the shadow of deep striker Javier Hernandez.
While the tactics didn't surprise, what did was United's thundering opening to the game, when the Red Devils weren't shy about pushing forward. This unsettled Barcelona, which is used to taking control of the game by slowing down the pace. But United started off in a full sprint, playing at a frantic pace and forcing small mistakes from Barca's lauded ball handlers.
Most of all, United forced Barca playmaker Xavi to come back and help out on defense, which he isn't accustomed to doing and which upset his side's offensive rhythm by robbing it of the outlet option. For about a 10-minute spell, Barca teetered on a feeble back foot and looked set for a fall.
But United couldn't keep up its frantic pace, as Barca discovered the bearings they had misplaced and gathered together enough possession to stop having to defend continuously.
If United's strategy had been to force an early goal, it backfired. Because the energy it blew through early -- perhaps looking to emulate the strategy that helped Arsenal beat Barcelona, when the Gunners attacked in quick, concentrated bursts -- yielded nothing but an opportunity for Barca to regain the control its game is premised on holding.
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
And as the first half tore along, Barca was able to push further and further up the field. Whereas it had to settle for pinging it around 60 yards from United's goal in the 15th minute or so, it was a fixture in the Red Devils' half not long thereafter.
Just to contain Barca, United was forced to pull its forward wingers, Ji-Sung Park and Antonio Valencia, way back to play alongside its central midfielders, Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, who was tasked with guarding Lionel Messi on his many runs. Even Rooney had to drop into his team's defensive third to help out. In the space it thus annexed, Barca found the comfort to deliver ever more precise balls, which it had been denied from doing early on, giving away possession three consecutive times at one point.
Eventually, United's midfield was set up just 10 yards in front of its defense, giving Barca all the room it needed to operate in. And even if United played very tight in the back and was quick to correct its mistakes, all its offense now came in the form of thumping balls forward for Hernandez to run onto, which was a futile approach.
By the 27th minute, Barca had slowed down the pace to its liking and advantage. Then Xavi, the genius of passes both long and short, managed to slip behind Carrick and Giggs, receive the ball and, with the outside of his foot, send a masterful ball through an immense amount of traffic into the side of the box, where a grateful Pedro controlled it and slid it past Edwin van der Sar at the near post for the opening goal. It was the type of beautiful, against-the-grain diagonal ball that is both Barca's specialty and impossible to defend. Such a goal had more or less become an inevitability once United had had to give up on its blistering pressure and set up deeper and deeper in its half.
Following the opening goal, though, United did dare to venture out of its half, refusing to pursue only the quick breakaway. On a nice attack, achieved through an overload on the right side of the field in the 34th minute, United got the ball to Rooney. He played a give-and-go with Carrick, then slipped it to Giggs, who was playing off the last man's shoulder. When central defender Gerard Pique stepped out on Giggs, Rooney was free to swipe the back pass from Giggs past Victor Valdes to achieve the gorgeous equalizer.
Although United had managed to stem the one-way traffic briefly, and clogged the center of the field with enough manpower and finesse that not even Messi could get through, Barca eventually regained control and got off a few more decent chances before the whistle went for halftime.
The second half brought more of the same. Barca settled onto the ball and United had to shrink into its territory to try to avoid more serious damage. But all the while, United, to its eternal credit and running counter to the vast majority of the teams that face Barca, still very much tried to play the game positively, venturing forward when it finally managed to break the Catalans' spell on the ball.
But this occasional venturing into the opposing half left the room for Xavi to play a ball square to Iniesta in the 54th minute. Iniesta played it back into the same direction it had come from, to Messi this time. The Argentine mighty mite then took a touch inside, pivoted past the on-rushing Patrice Evra and discovered that Nemanja Vidic had failed to step out on him and was protecting only his privates, rather than the goal. Needing no reminding of the task at hand, Messi quickly thumped the ball past van der Sar.
This was the dagger that United had sought to avoid. Because exhaustion precluded it from responding quickly with a counter-goal for the second time and it was now forced to stretch its lines forward in order to stand a chance at evening the game. This gave Messi more and more space to dance around in, as his man-marker -- an exhausted and, probably, demoralized Carrick -- had now well and truly lost his grip on him. All of Barca's ball handlers, in fact, now had the lay of the land, whereas right back Dani Alves started finding the room to push ahead too.
It was in another one of those periods in which United ventured out over the wings that Barca created the third chance in a five-minute span. This time though, a great run from Messi was cut short in the box. When the ball eventually caromed to Sergio Busquets, he played it off to David Villa, who found enough room to curl a stunning shot around a charging Rio Ferdinand and past van der Sar's reaching fingertips to settle into the goal's top corner.
And that, with a mere 70 minutes played, put an end to one of the more impressive sights seen in a soccer stadium in quite some time.
United very nobly continued to try to attack and make a game of it, but Barca dominated the ball and killed the game off skillfully, as it does once a week -- sometimes twice.
United was defeated, physically and emotionally, outwitted and outplayed. A worthy opponent it was, for a worthy final between two giants of the game.
Barcelona is European champion for the second time in three years.
And for their play, we can do no more but doff our caps and be grateful that we got to witness such a display.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE SPORTS HEADLINES
- Ribery, Benzema charged with soliciting minor
- Ex-U.S. coach denies Solo's shoving allegation
- Messi, Ronaldo, Iniesta UEFA award finalists
- Kompany: Van Persie would boost any team