Barcelona vs. Manchester United: Reliving the UEFA Champions League Final

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates scoring his teams second goal during the UEFA Champions League final between FC Barcelona and Manchester United FC at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

It started out shakily enough.  For one thing, I was surrounded by United supporters straight from England, who were guzzling bottles of beer and ready to explode with cheers, jeers, and songs.  Then I saw that Puyol was not starting, and that Mascherano would be paired with Piqué in the back.  I think Mascherano has been fantastic this season, but knowing the confidence and talismanic effect Puyol brings to his team, I was worried.

The start of the game did little for these fears as Manuchester United, much as they had in 2009, came out flying. The first fifteen minutes saw some scary through balls to Rooney, some blown possession by Barcelona, and some heroic saves by Victor Valdés.

But Barcelona weathered the storm, and gradually they began to impose their possession on the game.  Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets started to turn the ball around and find the gaps in midfield, releasing Man U’s pressure with every completed pass and slowly, methodically, sucking the spark out of their opponents.

Alves made some plays up the right, Piqué moved past midfield with confident possession, and Messi began to make some people miss and urge the Barcelona attack onward.  By the 30th minute, I was feeling very good about things.

Pedro’s goal was exhillerating.  Barcelona moved on something of a counterattack, with little Xavi pressing forward against the defense, drawing four defenders to him, and picking out Pedro with a gorgeous slanting through-ball, poked with the outside of his right foot.  Pedro was in perfect position on the right flank, wide enough to be in space, but not too wide so as to have no angle on goal, and he buried it clinically into the near post.

A prettier, simpler goal you may never see, as these two are the best in the world at just this combination—Pedro’s positioning on the right and finishing ability, Xavi’s uncanny vision, timing, and passing ability.  It was Barcelona at its best, scoring the type of goal they’re built to score.

Manchester United’s equalizer was awfully pretty, too, combining again a world-class midfielder (Giggs) with a world-class finisher (Rooney).  The Manchester Fans went wild, as expected, and beer went flying everywhere.  I just smiled.  I wasn’t crushed, I didn’t feel defeated.  Deep down, I knew Barcelona would respond, and I was almost grateful for an equalizer that would make eventual victory all the more sweet.

How glorious was the second half?  Barcelona came out flying and continued to move the ball around with ease.  Watching this team I could see the space and where the ball ought to go and somehow they almost always found a way to get it there.  It was as if tiny little footballing fantasies were fulfilled with every passing moment.

Messi’s goal was pure ecstasy.  He found a seam in space and cracked off the best strike I’ve seen from him since last year against Arsenal.  He hit the ball hard and pure and beat Van der Saar to his near post badly.  But the celebration was even better.  Never have I seen Messi so juiced on a goal.  He was absolutely overcome with passion and joy and you could tell, for just a moment, that he knows he’s the best in the world.

By now the Manchester United fans in my face were drinking their Heinekins in silence, slouched over and gloomy-faced, they saw what was so crystal clear: Barcelona was the better squad, and by far.

But without Villa’s goal, the result wouldn’t have shown it.  In the right place at the right time, as always, Villa spanked a curling strike into the upper ninety and went roaring off in celebration.  It was his best goal of the season, and his reaction showed it.  With one supremely technical strike, he proved all his nay-sayers (myself included) wrong: Villa is still one of the deadliest players in the game, and there’s no better man for Barcelona up top.

From there I did my best not to rub it into the faces of the Brits too badly.  I had lost my voice from screaming, but I’d never felt so good.  The match ended with a couple of lovely touches: Puyol’s brief appearance, Abidal lifting of the cup.  In my world I was rewarded by solemn hand-shakes from the Man U supporters, and words like “The better side won”, and “that’s the best f****in side I’ve ever seen.  I’ve been watching football since I was six, and that’s the best f***in side I’ve ever seen.  They’re unbeatable.”.  I smiled and nodded and got back to dancing with the culés.

While the league title did little for my emotions, this victory was better than I could have possibly imagined.  I felt high for the rest of the day, replaying Villa’s goal in my head again and again.  I thought of the gravity of the situation, the pressure this match imposed, and how incredibly our little footballers performed, scoring three of the most brilliant goals of the campaign.  I’ll never forget this match, this squad, or the look on Messi’s face as he roared into the stands and pumped both of his fists like the boss that he is.

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