Incredible Barcelona the greatest team ever
Remember them, enjoy them and cherish them. For it might be an awfully long time before we watch a team as complete as the Barcelona greats (we can call them that now with no comeback) who humbled Manchester United on a magical evening at Wembley.
This felt like the night when a preposterously brilliant group of players did not merely nail down their place in history alongside Real Madrid of the 1950s, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and the Liverpool of the late 70s/early 80s but demand to be considered a superior model to all of their predecessors.
There cannot have been a soul among the 87,695 spectators who left Wembley late on Saturday night feeling they had not witnessed something that will resonate through the ages.
Even for distraught Manchester United followers, such was Barcelona’s brilliance there was maybe a guilty pleasure in watching perhaps the finest expression yet of tiki-taka.
It was an ‘I was there’ kind of night. Wembley 2011 did not possess the nail-shredding drama of Istanbul in 2005 when Liverpool delivered the greatest comeback in the annals of the European Cup.
Barcelona were simply too good for that. Even a team possessed with United’s proven fortitude were not given a sniff of the kind of last-ditch retaliation that has been the hallmark of Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams through the years. The last 10 minutes almost passed without a whimper from the Premier League champions.
Barcelona are comfortably the best side on the planet, followed by daylight and then perhaps United or Real Madrid. The gulf, on the evidence of last night and this season, is vast.
The stage was set for Lionel to be king and Messi did not disappoint with a fabulous performance on the club game’s biggest stage that secured his place among the game’s greats.
Barely a United player went un-nutmegged as he weaved his way through A-list defenders as if they were white-jerseyed statues. There was a spell in the middle of the second half when the game almost became a sideshow to Messi’s wondrous dribbling and irresistible skill at demanding the attention of opponents while opening up space for others.
His goal was conjured out of nothing but said absolutely everything about a one-off, a once-in-a-generation talent that we should cherish because his like do not come along very often.
United could not live with Messi, nor could they subdue the slightly more earthy qualities of pass and move masters Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who snatched the baton from United’s grasp 10 minutes into the game and conducted the occasion to Barcelona’s bewitching rhythm.
The nerves from both sets of supporters were almost audible in the opening half as the two teams swapped goals, with Wayne Rooney’s wonderfully conceived and executed strike on a par with Pedro’s clinically dispatched opener following eye-of-the-needle passes from Iniesta and Xavi.
As the second period progressed, fewer stomachs were churned up as, for the magnificently colourful and vocal Barcelona fans who comfortably out-sang their counterparts, it became a time for celebration.
United’s midfield were bypassed at will by the golden triangle of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, as Ryan Giggs looked all of his 37 years and Michael Carrick was exposed once again as somewhere below the elite level. Only the tireless Ji-Sung Park, shunted inside from the left flank after the break to stem the Barca tide, was able to come close to narrowing the minute spaces in which they operate.
The roar that greeted the final whistle was probably matched by three other salutes - when the heartbeat of the team, Carles Puyol, was given a sentimental run-out in added time, when Pep Guardiola was thrown into the north-west London air by his players during the celebrations and when Eric Abidal lifted the trophy only two months after undergoing surgery on a liver tumour.
Rarely can a team have had such vast expectations hoisted on them. But, rarely, too, can a collection of players have responded so magnificently to the outside pressure and lit up a grand stage so brightly.
The fireworks that dazzled the night sky afterwards were an appropriate metaphor for such a sizzling evening. This performance felt like a near-perfect team playing at the absolute peak of its powers and delivering its A-game when it mattered most.
For that, we should thank Barcelona. And offer commiserations to United, who gave it a go but whose limitations were clear to see.
There is no embarrassment in that. The 2011 Barcelona vintage might very well be remembered as the best team the game has known.