Barcelona did it again. For the third time in six seasons, and second since Pep Guardiola took charge three years ago, Barcelona are champions of Europe. Just like in 2009, they had to beat Manchester United in the final to win the title.
Barcelona received a huge blow even before the match, as captain Carles Puyol was deemed unfit to start and Javier Mascherano had to take his place. On the other hand, Abidal was finally ready to play 90 minutes for the first time since winning the hardest battle of his life.
Just like in Rome two years ago, Manchester United started the game better. They managed to put pressure on Barcelona and stop the Catalans' usual passing game, while creating some half-chances of their own.
However, Barcelona gradually managed to impose their style on the match and chances started coming.
As per usual, Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta completely dominated the midfield with their slick, intricate passing. It was Xavi who ended up finding a gap in Manchester United's defense (a gap left by Patrice Evra), setting up Pedro Rodriguez, who once again showed that he's one of the best finishers in the game—1-0 for Barcelona after 27 minutes.
After the goal, Barcelona continued their domination and Manchester United could barely see the ball. After a three week rest, Barcelona looked almost as fit as in the beginning of the season and it showed during the match. Barcelona looked likely to score the second at any moment.
However, even when they're being outplayed, world-class teams can score a goal at any given moment and that's precisely what Manchester United did. In the 34th minute, a harmless throw-in was turned into a goal chance, which Wayne Rooney (United's best player on the day) took brilliantly. Despite Barcelona's dominance, United were very much in the game. Barely did United know that Rooney's goal would be their first and last shot on target during the match.
It's not that Manchester United were bad, it's just that Barcelona were truly on fire and produced some of their best football under Pep Guardiola, with impeccable ball retention and asphyxiating pressure. At half-time, the score was tied and there was still everything left to play for.
In their previous visit to London this season, Barcelona had conceded their only European defeat of the year at Ashburton Grove, a defeat that can be attributed to Barcelona's second half complacency and poor finishing on the day. But this time, the opposite happened and Barcelona actually stepped it up a notch in the second half, which was almost entirely played in Manchester United's half.
In the 54th minute, the Boy Genius, Lionel Messi, skipped past Manchester United's defense and fired a longe range shot past Edwin Van der Sar. It was his 12th goal in this season's Champions League, thus equaling Rudd Van Nistelrooy's record and, more importantly, giving Barcelona an advantage that would prove to be decisive.
When David Villa scored the most important goal of his career (and arguably one of the best in Champions League final history), Barcelona supporters around the world knew that the Cup wouldn't get away.
Another year, another triumph for Barcelona and another triumph for the Barcelona philosophy. Once again yesterday, Barcelona fielded seven homegrown players. And what can we say about their homegrown manager Pep Guardiola?
In three years as a professional manager, Pep Guardiola "only" won 10 trophies (including three leagues and two Champions Leagues) and created a juggernaut who is hailed by most as one of the finest sides of all-time. He's certainly the best manager in the world today.
But as great as Guardiola is, he must share the plaudits with the players. What happens when the three greatest players on the planet happen to play at the same club? Total domination happens, Barcelona happens.
Over the past three years, no team has been capable to impose their game on Barcelona, every single game is played on Guardiola's terms, regardless of the quality of the opposition. As fantastic as all Barcelona players are, the importance of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta can't be stressed enough, especially in the case of the Argentine.
At only 23 years old, Messi has already won the Champions League on three occasions, he has become the first player to be top scorer of this competition three years in a row and in the end of the year he will receive his third consecutive Ballon d'Or (equaling the record, with many years left to break it).
With yesterday's goal, he also equaled Van Nistelrooy's record for most goals in a single Champions League edition and Raul and Shevchenko's record for most goals in the Champions League knockout stages (19), a record he's pretty certain to beat next season.
While it might be premature to hail Messi as the best player of alltime (especially since he hasn't achieved much with Argentina), it's pretty safe to say that Messi is the greatest player in Champions League history (in the current format). No player has managed to dominate this competition as Messi has been doing in the past three seasons.
Despite his young age, Messi is already the seventh best scorer in Champions League history with 37 goals (and a goal ratio only matched by Van Nistelrooy) and it's only a matter of time until he overtakes Raul in this department. What really separates Messi from other players is that 19 of his goals (more than half) came in the knockout stages, when it matters the most.
With Messi leading again, Barcelona will try to become the first team to defend the Champions League trophy in its current format. It won't be easy, but you'd be a fool to bet against Barcelona. The blaugrana outfit will once again start the competition as favorites to reach the final in Munich.
Despite losing the final, Manchester United have no reason to feel ashamed. They had another great season where they finally overtook Liverpool's Premier League titles and once again, like in 2009, got to the Champions League final unbeaten.
As Sir Alex Ferguson, graceful in defeat, admitted, United only lost to one of the all-time great teams and there's no shame in that. Manchester United were just unlucky that their most consistent period in Europe happened to coincide with this great Barcelona team.
That said, few doubt that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United will have their chance again soon. Unlike Real Madrid in the semifinals, Manchester United tried to play football (as opposed to kick Barcelona players) and they can certainly hold their heads up high despite the result, they contributed to make the final a football spectacle.
But this is Barcelona's moment, Barcelona's year. It was a very difficult year for Barcelona, a season full of obstacles: World Cup-induced fatigue, an unusual injury crisis, the most expensive squad ever assembled in Real Madrid, the Madrid media, Madrid's anti-football, baseless accusations of cheating, doping, racism...you name it.
It took enormous mental strength for Pep Guardiola and the player to overcome all these obstacles and still come up victorious. And next season promises to be an even bigger challenge, with Real Madrid going on another mad summer spree and all. But this side has already proved they have what it takes to see off all their challengers and remain at the top. If they stick to their principles and philosophy, they certainly will.
Puyol letting Eric Abidal lift the Cup in the end showed what Barcelona is all about, in what was certainly one of the greatest moments of this football year.
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