A SWEET DREAM FOR BARCELONA
Manchester United wore all white for the “dream final” of this year‘s UEFA Champions League against FC Barcelona. The color of their uniforms very representative of Man U’s road to Rome, which lacked the blemish of a loss. Perfect through their first twelve tilts entering the final, with a record of 6 wins and 6 ties. In fact, Manchester came into this game as the very face of Champions League purity, having not experienced defeat in their last 25 Champions League matches. Accompanied by such an impressive unbeaten streak, the reigning world’s best football player in Cristiano Ronaldo and the title of defending champion, Manchester United came in as the heavy favorite to once again be crowned the kings of European football.
But on the other side of the pitch, however, stood a formidable foe, to say the least, in FC Barcelona. A team armed with their own set football stars, none bigger (figuratively speaking, of course) than Argentine forward Lionel Messi (Messi is 5’7” in height). Messi is considered the front runner to dethrone Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best soccer player in 2009. No one (including Ronaldo) has scored more goals in this year’s Champions League than Messi, yet none of his tournament leading 8 goals have come at the expense of an English club. Messi couldn’t score against Chelsea of the English Premier League in the semifinal round of this year’s tournament either. He just had to be there to make the pass to teammate Andres Iniesta who, in the final minute of that game, put the ball in the upper-right hand corner of the goal, past the out-stretched arm of Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, putting Barcelona, in effect, in this year’s Champions League Final in Rome. I suppose, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Just don’t tell Barça that they’re no good, especially this year. They have the hardware to prove it. Winners of both the Spanish League title and the Spanish Cup (better known as the Copa del Rey) for the 2008-2009 season, the thoroughbreds from Cataluña, under the direction of first-year head coach Pep Guardiola, were gunning for the Triple Crown of European Soccer by winning the continent’s most prestigious soccer tournament, the Champions League. And despite their anemic offensive showing against Chelsea in the semifinal round, Barcelona still trotted out onto the field at the Stadio Olimpico as the team with the most goals scored in this year’s Champions League competition with 30. However, it was Guardiola’s men who were in danger of going down one-Nill in the first minute of play, if not for goalkeeper Victor Valdes blocking an absolutely wicked shot off the foot of Cristiano Ronaldo. Denied once already, Ronaldo would not relent. In the next seven minutes, Ronaldo assaulted Valdes’ goal from distance, with a shot from about 30 yards out that sailed wide of the net. Ninety seconds later it was Ronaldo firing upon Valdes again, only to see his shot trickle past the base of the right post. Guardiola’s gladiators did everything they could to withstand the early firepower from their English enemies. Then came the ninth minute and Barcelona’s first breakthrough over the Manchester defense. On their very first visit into the area guarded by goalkeeper Edwin Van der Sar, Barcelona was able to put the ball in the back of the net, courteousy of Samuel Eto’o. Andres Iniesta, whose goal put Barcelona in the Champions League Final, this time provided the pass that lead to the goal that put Barcelona up 1-0 in the championship match. Eto’o showed great emotion after the goal. He would later comment on the special significance of that goal for him personally, being that it was the first time a goal by Eto’o put his team ahead in a Champions League Final. His other goal in a Champions League Final as a member of FC Barcelona only served to tie the score when Barcelona beat Arsenal, also of the English Premier League, to win the Champions League title back in 2006.
Manchester United, as ESPN play-by-play man Derrick Rae pointed out, were “shell-shocked” at the quick reversal of fortunes. It was United who had come out swinging from the start, and just like that it was United who were dealt the first blow. And although the one goal lead, according to Lio Messi, didn’t give Barcelona peace, it did give them the confidence they needed to assert themselves on the pitch and dictate the match the only way they know how: by keeping the ball away from their opponent. Barcelona displayed their stingy style of play throughout this year’s Champions League tournament. Prior to the Final, Barcelona averaged 37 minutes of ball possession per game (a stunning 87%). Against United, Barcelona would build a fortress, as it were, in the midfield, with Spanish Internationals Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta as the pillars, making it difficult for Manchester to mount any real further offensive threat. The once crisp, pin-pointed passes to Ronaldo, that the FIFA World Player of the Year would take and convert into goals, now went sailing over his head. In fact, after his opening minute free kick that was blocked by Valdes, Ronaldo would only have one more shot on goal the rest of the match, accounting for Manchester United’s only two shots on target in the 90 minutes of football played. “This is one of the biggest disappointments of my career,” Ronaldo said after the match. Thanks to the absolutely magical play of veterans like Barça team-captain Carles Puyol, Manchester United began to disappear from this match. Looking more like ghosts now in their all white uniforms, but generating an offense that scared no one.
Messi, on the other hand, conquered the demons that had kept him scoreless against English clubs in Champions League play. In the 70th minute, Xavi practically hand-delivered the ball and placed it in the perfect spot for Messi to head it home for the insurmountable two-nothing lead. “This is the most important victory of my life,” Messi said. “When the second goal came, that calmed us down a lot.” That was the goal that gave Barcelona peace. That was the goal that sealed the victory and gave Barcelona their first “triple crown” in team history. “More, we could not have done,” Guardiola said.