If you asked me before the game to draw up the perfect game for Barcelona, how would it have gone? I would have asked for an early goal to calm everyone's nerves. I would have asked for Eto'o to strike as a reward for turning his attitude 180 degrees and being the embodiment of the difference between last year's team and this. I would have asked for Leo Messi to score to cement the Ballon D'Or. I would have asked for Xavi and Iniesta to boss the midfield as an advertisement for the way Barca teach players to play at La Masia. I would have asked for Puyol to make Ronaldo his bitch, reducing Ronaldo to his arsenal of pouty faces. I would have asked for Paul Scholes to embarrass himself as punishment for knocking Barca out of the Champions League in 2008. I would have asked for Manchester United to wear white uniforms so they look like Real Madrid when getting beaten. I would ask for the final minutes of the game to play out with Barca stroking the ball around, as if to say dismissively "We don't need to score anymore. You've had enough."
In other words, I would have asked for exactly what happened on May 27, 2009 in Rome.
So how did this happen? How did a team that was unbeaten in 25 straight Champions League games get undressed? I'm glad you asked:
1. Whether he wanted to prove a point after last year's semifinal or he was suckered in by a makeshift back four, Sir Alex decided to attack from the start. This was a mistake because it gave Barca's front five oxygen. United played well at the start, but they were creating space for Barca. Look at what happened on the first goal. Iniesta played a one-two at the center circle and suddenly had lots of space to attack. He never had that space against Chelsea or United last year. He freed Eto'o in the box and Samuel made no mistake. Where's the left back Evra when Eto'o cuts in from the right? Where is Anderson covering Iniesta when Carrick goes towards Messi at the start of the play? The amount of space forced United's players into decisions and they often made the wrong choices.
2. United decided to use the new Happy Fun Ball by shooting a lot from distance. This played into Barca's hands as Valdes is a good shot-stopper and United didn't test the Barca backline with crosses. Ronaldo was the worst "shoot from anywhere!" offender. As great as he is, he can be the Iverson of football: a volume shooter who does not involve his teammates. That's fine when he's scoring, but I don't see him as being the right guy for a very talented United frontline. (Then again, United's midfield is not full of creative types, so an individualist makes some sense.) This is the best argument in the Messi-Ronaldo debate: look at the assists.
3. United played the wrong formation. If Barca's weak link was left back, then why play Park, an offensive non-threat, at right forward? Rooney was positioned opposite Puyol, Barca's best defender. In the second half, Ronaldo was opposite Puyol and had no success.
4. Xavi and Iniesta were the men of the match. They assisted on the two goals and dominated United in midfield. Giggs and Anderson are not in their class and Carrick had an off night. I felt bad for Rooney. His midfield was getting bossed and his striker was hogging the ball every time it came forward. He was totally absent and it wasn't his fault.
5. For all of Barca's struggles against English teams, they haven't played with the lead in the last two years. Once Eto'o struck, Barca's possession game came into play and they dominated. Despite a possibly suspect defense, Barca are the perfect team to play with a lead (or in a road first leg) because of their passing style. United had to open themselves up further and play into Barca's hands. (Looking back four years, this is why Arsenal fans were insane to retrospectively want to concede a goal instead of a red card in the '06 Final.)
6. United were not as good as we thought. The Arsenal win over-inflated their value and obscured the fact that they were not very good against top teams this year.
7. Barca were better than we thought. They struggled against Chelsea, but great defensive teams can make great offensive teams look bad (and Barca had the game at Real in between the Chelsea match, so they couldn't be 100% invested). Once Barca's players had two weeks off after the Copa del Rey Final, they were able to recharge and show their best form.
- If you want two unlikely means of goals for this Barcelona team, then you wouldn't do much worse than Eto'o cutting in from the right (a role in which he was woeful in the second leg against Chelsea and even the chorreo at the Bernabeu) and Messi scoring with his head.
- I feel like a damned fool on a night like this coming up with a negative, but there is one. If you were a manager looking to beat Barcelona in 2009-10, what approach would you take? Would you take Manchester United's approach of trying to attack the Blaugrana and thus create space in the midfield for Xavi and Iniesta or would you take the Chelsea approach of packing ten behind the ball and being as physical as possible? Which approach pushed Barca to the brink of elimination and which leaves them astride the football world as a colossus?
- One other sad thought: I couldn't help but think as the final minutes ticked away about what Ronaldinho was doing watching the match. He could have been on the left side of the trident, receiving pass after pass from the dominant midfield. Instead, he let himself become a shadow of the World Player of the Year. That was three short years ago. Imagine the regret he must feel now as he rides the pine for an average Milan side.
- So what does Barca look to buy in the offseason? How do you improve upon this team? I need to give this some thought, but the only answer I can come up with right now is that they need more depth, especially in the midfield.
- After the Chelsea matches, it was nice to watch a match that was played with few fouls and cards and little controversy. The game flowed very well.
- Though we will all choose to forget it, it sure seems like a long time ago that Joan Laporta was barely surviving a no-confidence vote and then the fans were waving white hankies in protest when Barca took one point from the first two games of the season.
- Does anyone know off the top of their heads the list of players who have been reigning European Champions on both a club and a national team level like Puyol, Xavi, and Iniesta are now?