FC Barcelona Defeats Manchester United for Fourth Champions League Title
Lionel Messi and company dominated Man U on one of soccer’s biggest stages, claiming the UEFA Champions League trophy with a 3-1 victory on Saturday night before 87,695 at Wembley Stadium in London.
Goals from all three of Barcelona’s forwards — Pedro in the 27th minute, Messi in the 54th and David Villa in the 69th — overcame Wayne Rooney’s strike for United in the 34th as the Spanish side outshot its opponents 22-4 on the night.
After its second European cup triumph in three seasons, the question now is not whether this Barcelona squad is the best in the world today but rather if it is the best team in the history of club soccer.
"That's the best team we've ever faced," said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has coached the Red Devils for 25 seasons.
The Blaugrana certainly stated their case for the "best of all-time" designation Saturday, imposing their keepaway style of quick passing against the English champions.
The Red Devils made a bright start to the match, forcing the Barcelona players into some nervy moments with frenetic pressure high up the pitch from forwards Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez.
Barcelona settled in after about ten minutes, though, and began to find their rhythm in the midfield.
Villa fired wide of the near post from the top of box in the 20th minute and had his shot from just inside the penalty area saved by United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in the 21st.
The breakthrough for the Blaugrana came six minutes later, when midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez drew the attention of five United defenders before slipping a well-weighted pass to Pedro on the right wing. The 23-year-old took one touch and then slotted the ball into the lower right corner of the goal, leaving van der Sar no option but to watch the back of the net bulge.
The score was level seven minutes later though, when the Red Devils grabbed an equalizer seemingly out of nowhere. Barcelona lost possession on a throw-in in its own half and Rooney pounced on the ball in the midfield. He played a nice one-two with Ryan Giggs on the right wing (who looked to be a shoulder offside), receiving Giggs’ return pass near the penalty spot. Rooney then bended a shot between a lunging Dani Alves and a diving Victor Valdes into the left side of the goal.
Rooney’s goal enlivened the massive traveling contingent of United fans, many of whom had made the 200-mile trek from Manchester to give their squad an edge in support.
"We got ourselves back into the game [at 1-1] and genuinely believed we could go on to win," Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand said. "But we've got to give credit to Barcelona…they deserved to win."
Tied 1-1 at halftime, Barcelona came out the better side in the second half. United had done an excellent defensive job on Messi, the reigning FIFA world player of the year, up to that point but the 5-foot-6 Argentine forward sprang lose nine minutes into the second period. The 23-year-old found himself in space 30 yards from goal, took three touches with his left foot and fired a low curling shot that snuck past van der Sar’s outstretched arm.
United defenders Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic were frozen on the play and failed to close down Messi quickly enough, allowing the Argentine to give his team the lead.
Villa clinched the trophy for the Catalan side in the 69th minute. The 29-year-old Spaniard, who had just scored one goal in his last 16 games, received a pass from midfielder Sergio Busquets near the top of the United penalty box. Villa took one steadying touch and sent a looping shot past a diving van der Sar and into the top right corner of the net.
"It takes so much to win this tournament, it always does," Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola said. "I thought we played excellently tonight. We went 1-0 up but we knew that with all of United's history and stature they would come back at us. In the end, though, we managed to control the match and we won very well."
Messi earned Man of the Match honors and finished as the tournament’s top scorer for the third consecutive season.
"Lionel Messi is the best player I've seen, the best I will ever see probably," Guardiola said. "We have good players, but without him I don't think we'd be able to make that decisive leap. Messi is unique, a one-off, and I hope he'll stay happy."
With a mostly young squad likely to stay intact, Barcelona figure to be favorites again for next season’s Champions League.
"Great teams go in cycles and the cycle they're in at the moment is the best in Europe, no question about that," Ferguson said.
Barcelona fans were treated to another joyful sight after Saturday’s match, as French defender Eric Abidal was the first player to lift the trophy in celebration - a designation that usually falls to the team captain. Skipper Carles Puyol, though, passed the captain’s armband to Abidal, who played all 90 minutes Saturday after having a liver tumor removed in mid-March. At the time of the surgery, Abidal worried that he may never play soccer again.
"It made me full of emotion to think about it and everything I have been through and I could not hold [the tears] in," Abidal told Spanish television station about Puyol’s gesture. "This kind of thing is why this is such a special club. We are like a family and everyone treats each other with love and respect."
With the victory Barcelona claimed its fourth European cup title in club history. Only Real Madrid (nine), AC Milan (seven) and Liverpool (five) have more.
Cue the transfer speculation about United’s Bulgarian forward Dimitar Berbatov. Berbatov, who led the English Premier League with 20 goals this season, wasn’t even chosen as a potential substitute for the match by Ferguson.
Reach Jonathan by email.