It was a match that was touted to rewrite recent soccer history. It would have scripted a classic clash between intense and serious English football and its more playful and frivolous, nonetheless effective, Spanish variety with their respective protégés, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi staging a fight to remember. The UEFA Champions League 2009 final match between Manchester United and FC Barcelona in Rome on the 27th of May caught the imagination of football fans all over the world as it promised a rare treat of seeing two of the greatest sides battling over the coveted trophy.
A treat the match indeed was, but only for the supporters of Barcelona. In what could have been 90 electrifying minutes, the mighty Spanish side played a leisurely, almost passive game and managed in their inimitable style to score two comfortable goals, making the attack-oriented ManU side look like a bunch of ineffective fools on the field.
Most of the debates in the football world preceding the match ended with experts acknowledging the greatness of the Catalans, but all clearly indicating that this match would belong to Sir Alex’s boys. Not only were they the defending champions from the previous season, intent to make history by trying to retain the trophy for the first time ever in the tournament, but also their game of heavy attack would have the Barca defense line-up, considerably weakened by the absence of Rafael Marquez and Eric Abidal, crumble in no time. Christiano Ronaldo was in excellent form, as he had shown in that heartbreaking 41-yard free-kick against Arsenal in the semi-finals, and he would be helped by the immense Wayne Rooney to brush aside those minor hitches called Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o in the opposing side.
But the fact that Lionel Messi was beaten by Ronaldo to the Ballon d’Or this time could not and would not overshadow the fact that Barcelona was perhaps still the best side in the world despite the departure of the great Ronaldinho; and the holy trinity of Messi, Henry and Eto’o was bolstered in the midfield by the versatile Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Thus, after a nervous start with Manchester booming five shots at the goal, Samuel Eto’o wiggled past a suddenly scatterbrained ManU defense to score the first goal in the 10th minute. The Red Devils (in white that day) fought back, especially a restless Ronaldo, who was soon fouled by the desperate Barca center-back Gerard Pique on his way to a possible goal.
If the score-card at half-time enraged the hordes of United fans who had journeyed to Rome to support their team, the second-half of the match only served to turn this rage into utter despondency. Lionel Messi, who had been heavily manned throughout the match so far, suddenly found himself left alone in the 70th minute and headed a brilliant cross from Xavi straight into the goalpost. By this time, Barca had gone down to their almost lazy possession-retaining game of passing the ball to each other; crushing United’s attacking game plan. Even the introduction of Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes into the field could not save the day for Sir Alex Ferguson. As if to rub in the misery, Swiss referee Massimo Busacca rewarded United star Ronaldo with a yellow card in the 78th minute for hardplay. The Spanish Armada crushed the English fleet with heartrending ease to consolidate their position as the most powerful football club in Europe once again, with their triple titles of La liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League.
The match can indeed be called dull compared to some of the other matches played by the Catalans, where they have shown more of their magical footwork and charisma. But it still reiterates the immense superiority of Spanish football, with its emphasis on intricate dodges and swift ball-passing, over the still young and more reckless English type with the onus on attack. Even the import of Spanish talent like Tevez has failed to take English football closer to the magic of Spain as was seen in players like Eto’o, Xavi and Messi on the day of the Champions League 2009 final.