When referee Massimo Busacca blew the final whistle on the 27th of May, 2009 in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the Reds knew they were comprehensively outdone. The scoreline was 2-0 and a 170 cm tall magician had just scored a header to seal the victory. Two years later, this glorious match in Wembley, the new-age English Mecca, gave Sir Alex and his cavalrymen an opportunity to exact revenge. They would have to defeat a core of winners on the way to the coveted Big Ears trophy. Xavi, Iniesta, Piqué, Puyol, Villa, Pedro had won the FIFA World Cup the year before and had won La Liga at a canter. Back then the odds were stacked up against Manchester United. It was a tough prospect, but what was United, if not fight and passion and desire and character?
As the Champions League anthem played and the two managers observed the mandatory pleasantries at the beginning, it was evident that Sir Alex was ready for a fierce face-off. In goal for Manchester United was Edwin van der Saar, playing his last first-class game for the club. Manchester United lined up as they had started the final league game, in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez furthest forward and Rooney right behind him, employed in a classic number 10 role. Giggs, Carrick and a pairing of Ferdinand and Vidic completed a scary, yet smoothly efficient spine for the North Westerners.
Barcelona lined up in a Pep-approved 4-3-3 with Wingers Villa and Pedro fluidly interchanging at will. Puyol was left out of the initial 11 and instead, Mascherano was paired up with Pique. The triumvirate of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets occupied the centre of the pitch. The midfield battle was one to watch out for as Rooney would have to drop deeper to make up the numbers, else Barcelona would have a numerical advantage.
Rajabets confirm that this match received a record number of bets for the entire 2011 Champions League season.
Manchester United settled in quickly and were first to get off the blocks. Victor Valdes did not have too much to do in goal across the season, but he was called into action as early as the eighth minute to acrobatically punch a ball away from an onrushing Rooney. Barcelona got their first real chance of the game in the fifteenth minute when Xavi found himself on the left-wing and put in a near-post ball for Pedro to attack. It went wide, the warning signs were there for display. For the whole of the first half, the almost impossible responsibility of man-marking Messi was given to Park. This opened up pockets of space for the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, and Villa, who let fly promptly, without needing a second telling. Most of the shots were easily parried by the veteran goalkeeper.
The first goal of the game arrived with some more clever movement from Pedro. He found himself 10 yards within sight of his goal and he gave van der Saar the eyes to slot it past the keeper’s left-hand side. This was after a slick pick out from Xavi. Guardiola was tumultuous on the touchline. The Red Devils hit back within 7 minutes. A quick one-two with Carrick put Rooney in behind the Barcelona midfield and had him running at the centre-halves. Another exchange with Giggs, who may have been slightly offside, and he lashed out a curler into the top left corner of the net. Parity, although against the balance of play, was restored. The two teams went into the dressing rooms after 45 absorbing minutes of football.
The second half started with United sitting a bit deeper and trying to hit Barcelona on the counter-attack, not wanting to concede any further goals. Nine minutes into the half, Iniesta found Messi who found he had the space to pull the trigger. He did so from 25 yards and the result was powerful, pinpoint hit into the net past a hapless van der Saar.
There was really no looking back from there for the Blaugrana. They took complete control over the game. The passing in midfield proceeded like a metronome. Attack after attack was put together as 777 passes were completed during the course of the game. Sir Alex Ferguson was hoping for a miracle. It did come, but in the form of a response to Rooney’s curler in the first half, in the 69th minute. Messi’s mazy dribble from the right flank was intercepted inside the box, but the ball found its way to Villa who took a touch to steady the ball, then nonchalantly placed it in the top right corner.
That was the fatal blow. Although there was a general shift into ultra-attack, two quickfire substitutions could not change the game for the Reds. The rest of the match passed as a formality. When the final whistle blew, the world feasted its eyes upon the champions of Europe, the best football club on the planet, and considered by many, the best team ever assembled. In the opposition manager’s words, “They are the best team I’ve ever faced.” Similar words were echoed by Vidic and Ferdinand too.
On behalf of Barcelona, Eric Abidal accepted the trophy as a tribute to his return after his battle with cancer. Another famous image was that of Pique cutting up the net for a memorable souvenir. This Barca side may be ousted by teams who have achieved more success in terms of the number of trophies won, but the enchanting beauty of their football is not re-creatable and they will go down as one of the most excitable club teams to have taken to the field.
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MOTM: Lionel Messi
The minimum pass accuracy for a starting outfield player for Barcelona was 80.2%, Dani Alves.
Manchester United no of passes: 377.
Barcelona no of passes: 777
Messi received a perfect 10 rating.
He completed 10 dribbles and 4 key passes, was fouled 6 times- the most.
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