The secondary billing to the UEFA Champions League Cup final in the Olympic Stadium in Rome was the contest between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to decide who was this year’s best player in the world, and for the first ten minutes there was only one victor, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Man United started the match on fire, dominating possession they reined in shots on the Barcelona goal. Ronaldo shooting at will went close on three occasions. Valdes fumbled a Giggs free kick and the onrushing Ji-Sung Park narrowly failed to slide the ball in. It was a Manchester United free for all.
In the tenth minute the game changed with Barcelona’s first attack. The ball was played down the right side of the field, Samuel Eto'o cut inside Nemanja Vidic and toe-poked the ball past Edwin Van Der Sar at the near post. One attack, 1-0 to Barcelona.
The game changed completely. Barcelona began to exhibit the orchestral possession football we have become accustomed to seeing them produce. The two premier conductors Iniesta and Xavi in the centre of midfield.
Their style of play really is amazing and is something quite different from any other team in world football, except perhaps the Spanish national team.
Combining with Messi, who drops back from a more advanced position, the three diminutive players seek out the centrally congested areas of the field and with one touch football, perfect control and awareness, dominate them.
Combine this with their incredible sharpness and it renders all three of them practically untouchable. It is no slur on Messi, who is renowned for his amazingly quick feet and dribbling, to say that it is impossible at times to tell him, Iniesta and Xavi apart.
The first half ended without any more incident, Barcelona going in 1-0 up and the hordes of Manchester United fans wondering if a stirring half-time speech from Alex Ferguson would restore the dominance United displayed at the onset of the game.
This didn’t seem an unreasonable hope. There are weaknesses to be exploited in this Barcelona team. Defensively they have been decimated by injuries. Eric Abidal out and Rafa Marquez missing from the centre of defence. The wonderful Brazilian right back Dani Alves suspended and the ageing warrior Carles Puyol playing out of position in his place.
Three years ago Puyol was completely exposed for pace by Thierry Henry, his teammate, who was then playing for Arsenal. It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Cristiano Ronaldo to do the same.
Wayne Rooney is capable of moments of brilliance, up till half-time he had been looking lost, playing out wide, his usually immaculate first-touch often letting him down. It would only take one spark to bring United back into the game.
And on the bench sat Carlos Tevez, the pit-bull, under-sized and under-used this season, would it be his turn to come on and make a difference. What could United do? What could Sir Alex conjure up?
United came out early for the second half. Ferguson had made his move, Tevez was on replacing Anderson. The stage was set for a United revival. They kicked off and almost immediately Barcelona dominated.
Henry, who looked injured and who alone, took no part in the up the park harrying style of aggressive defending that Barcelona operate, sublimely dummied and cut back inside the sprawling Ferdinand just failing to beat Van De Saar in a one on one from close range.
Minutes later Iniesta was brought down directly in front of the penalty area. Xavi took the resulting free-kick curling the ball right-footed past Van Der Sar only to see it come back off the post.
It was almost an exact parallel to the start of the first half, this time with Barcelona in the acsendency. You wondered if it was now United’s turn to produce something out of the blue to turn the game again.
It wasn’t. Ferguson tapped into the attacking talent on his bench and brought on Berbatov for Park on 66 minutes. Four minutes later, Messi scored Barcelona’s second.
A cross from Xavi on the right and Messi, finding space between United’s central defenders, rose and hung in the air before placing a textbook header to the left of a static Van De Saar.
The game was effectively over. United persevered but without inspiration. Scholes came on for Carrick and was promptly yellow-carded. Ronaldo became irritated with an inspired, but increasingly theatrical Puyol, and joined him.
For United the final whistle signified a somewhat muted end to what has been an otherwise successful season. There were no tears, no drama and Sir Alex Ferguson, who was magnanimous in defeat, stated the apparent and declared Barcelona the better side.
For Barcelona it has been a triumphant end to a season of magical football. They rode their luck at Chelsea but remained true to the attacking football pioneered by their rookie coach Pepe Guardiola.
For more than anything they have been a celebration, a joy to watch. A fabulous forward line, and at the heart of their philosophy, three little men, who have almost re-defined the fine arts of central midfield play.
Viva Messi, Viva Xavi, Viva Iniesta.