How Barca won my heart back
After a long weekend being served arroz con crow by my Catalan friends, I have come away at once heartened and terrified for the future of soccer.
I'm hopeful because Barcelona showed, at exactly the right time, that there is enough joy and beauty left in the game for us to forget the farcical machinations of those greedy FIFA suits doing their best to sully the sport for personal gain.
At the same time, I'm afraid because there seems no visible end in sight for Barca's domination of European soccer. For the next few years at least, UEFA might as well consider taking a page out of Dr. Kevorkian's medical playbook and offer a quick and merciful end to the rest of the Champions League participants rather than subject them to a slow and agonizing death at the mesmerizing feet of Barcelona.
Let's face it, as long as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi continue to weave their magic at Camp Nou, what hope is there for anyone else in Europe? Remember, the United team that they dismantled Saturday had just won "The Greatest League In The World" by nine points. Just days after trumpeting their perch-busting 19th title, the Red Devils were made to look like a collection of high-priced training cones by Barca's speed, precision and guile. So while there are rumblings that Barca's brilliant young manager, Pep Guardiola, may soon seek a new challenge, such is the Blaugrana's overwhelming superiority that even Avram Grant could avoid relegation with them. Actually, strike that. Uncle Avi would have found a way.
After watching Saturday's Messicre, can you think of any non-Jose Mourinho-coached opponent Barca would not have toyed with? The Paranoid One has proved with both Inter Milan in last year's Champions League semis and Real Madrid in the 2011 Copa del Rey that the only way to beat Barcelona is to take it out of its rhythmic passing game and goad it into a war of attrition. By bullying Barca around the park, Madrid succeeded in bringing out the worst in its bitter rivals, forcing the Catalans to indulge in the kind of histrionics and play-acting that tainted the beauty of their game and caused a certain mustachioed soccer columnist to make myopic sweeping judgments about how Barca has betrayed its pedigree.
Pass me another wing of crow, please.
Seldom have I been so utterly and foolishly wrong. Well, except perhaps when I predicted for the past six years that Arsenal would win a trophy.
I now realize how misguided it was for me to extrapolate from the recent Clasicos with Real Madrid that Barca had turned into a bunch of whiny, sanctimonious drama queens. Those games were death struggles played in a toxic environment with nationalistic overtones, and if the Catalans exaggerated their reactions to minimal contact, it was perhaps just their way of trying not to end up like two Barca stars of the 1980s, Diego Maradona and Bernd Schuster, whose ankle and leg, respectively, were broken by Spain's Andoni Goikoetxea. ("The Butcher of Bilbao" was so proud of his thuggish antics that he placed the boot that crippled El Diablo in a glass case on his mantelpiece.)
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To his credit, Sir Alex Ferguson eschewed the negative and goonish approach favored by Mourinho and the result was a Champions League final largely devoid of refereeing controversies and amateur theatrics -- two operatic tumbles by Barca's favorite flopper Sergio Busquets early and late in the match were the only instances of bad acting I noted -- even though United committed 16 fouls compared to Barca's five.
While Sir Alex's strategy of not sitting back and trying to soak up the pressure was admirable on one level, it was curious on another. Two years ago in the Champions League final, he had opted for a risk-averse approach against Barca, trying to strangle its attacking mojo by clogging the midfield and hoping to hit it on the counter. It didn't work because, as Ferguson later admitted, his team displayed too much deference, standing around and marveling at Barca's "passing carousel" while the Catalans buzzed past them en route to a 2-0 coronation. Considering that this Barca team was widely regarded as being even stronger than the 2009 edition, it was a surprisingly bold gambit by Sir Alex to deploy two strikers (Wayne Rooney and Chicharito) and two wingers (Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia) and take the game to Barca rather than mass behind a defensive wall protected by a holding midfielder.
And for about 10 minutes, Fergie looked like a tactical genius as United pressed and harried all over the field and the Barca defense, without its talismanic captain Carles Puyol, looked shaky, especially when Victor Valdes was forced to come hurtling off his line to punch the ball clear of Rooney steaming in on goal.
But if you remember Rome, Barca had also started slowly, and at Wembley, once it gained its footing, there was little that United could do to disrupt it. Even when Rooney equalized to give the illusion of a competitive match by halftime, was there really any doubt that the Catalans owned United?
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
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• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
Sure, the score was deadlocked at 1-1, but on the few occasions when United won the ball back from Barca -- the Blaugrana had 63 percent of the possession -- United seemed tentative and slack in its passing and movement. Neither the indefatigable Park nor the talented Valencia, normally such confident and precise distributors, supplied Rooney and Chicharito with any real service, while the 37-year-old wonder Ryan Giggs finally looked his age, chasing Messi around like he was trying to swat a flea with a ballpoint pen. If Barca were able to ratchet up the level of its play after the interval -- Messi, of all people, had uncharacteristically missed a handful of golden chances -- I thought United was doomed.
The exquisite mastery of Barca's second-half performance was perhaps best embodied by the leisurely pace that Xavi and Iniesta worked the ball through the midfield. At times, they appeared to be walking as they probed for openings until that moment when they would glimpse the tiniest of fissures in the United rearguard, and then with a killer pass they would quicken the pulse. Such was the case when Iniesta found Messi at the edge of the United penalty area in the 54th minute. While the resulting goal was hardly one for the aesthetic ages like his sick slalom run past five Real defenders and majestic dink over Iker Casillas in the first leg of their CL semifinal, it didn't have to be because the United defense gave the Argentine maestro enough time to bathe, shave and shine his neon green boots before he lashed the ball beyond Edwin van der Sar's despairing dive.
The thing about Messi is that he just continues to improve, something that I didn't think was possible after 2009. His off-the-ball movement, dribbling, vision, balance and acceleration were already at such a ridiculous level that I feared the target on his back would encourage defenders to stifle him at any cost. After all, if the conventional wisdom was that to stop Messi was to stop Barca, it seemed only a matter of time before he became the victim of some heinous assault that cut short his genius.
Yet, astonishingly, two years later, he appears even more consistent and dangerous, combining the jaw-dropping creativity of Zinedine Zidane, the ruthless finishing of Ronaldo and the floppy hair of Justin Bieber into one diminutive but lethal package. Every time he set off on one of his defense-shredding runs on Saturday, the camera caught Fergie furiously chewing gum, his hands balled into fists that were palpably shaking. Perhaps the ageless Scot had seen the future and it dawned on him that the Barca well isn't drying up anytime soon. Replacements are lined up for many of the key players who are on the dark side of 30: a strong and agile young centerback named Andreu Fontas is being groomed for Puyol's role; Barca may yet buy Cesc Fabregas to fill the Xavi-shaped hole in midfield or simply turn to the brash 20-year-old Thiago to assume the reins, and the 25-year-old Dutch winger Ibrahim Afellay has shown enough promise in his cameos to suggest he is an attacking force to be reckoned with. And did I mention that Messi is still only 23?
Similarly, La Masia, Barca's fabled breeding ground for talent, is churning out future stars faster than EPL teams can sign them. And when you hear that the club's beloved manager Guardiola believes the world only caught a single glimpse of the Blaugrana's true potential this season, in the 5-0 humiliation of Real Madrid at Camp Nou early in the year, you realize why Sir Alex's hands were trembling.
So while we all know that soccer is cyclical and that one generation's Ajax is another generation's Real Madrid, Barcelona may just prove the self-perpetuating exception for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, my advice is to just sit back in your Barca-lounger and enjoy watching them. Now you'll excuse me while I finish my dessert -- a dish of humble flan.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."