Early Doors

Barca prove they are Masters of the Arts

Early Doors

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It's funny how, after the big event, the minutae of what went on beforehand pales into insignificance.

The big team news ahead of the Champions League final was that Barcelona captain Carles Puyol was only fit enough to make the bench, while Dimitar Berbatov had been dropped from the Manchester United squad entirely.

The debate over how Javier Mascherano would fare at centre-back against Javier Hernandez or whether Michael Owen would come off the bench to become the new Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sparked quickly into life.

But in the end, the inevitable happened. Barcelona wore down United at Wembley and secured their fourth European Cup with a sensational 3-1 win.

Just as in their meeting on the same stage two years ago, United were given the runaround by their Catalan nemesis. The good news was that United were better than they were on that night in Rome. The bad news is that so were Barca. Much better.

Pep Guardiola's side are without equal in the way they play the game, combining astounding grace clinical precision. They are truly masters of both arts and sciences.

Alex Ferguson could do little apart from accept that, as good as his own team have been en route to claiming a record 19th league title this season, Barca are a band apart.

"Nobody's given us a hiding like that but they deserve it because they play the right way and they enjoy their football," he said. "Great teams do go in cycles and the cycle they are in at the moment is the best in Europe. In my time as a manager I'd say yes, they are the best team I've faced."

After a season which has seen personal, club and competition records smashed with alarming regularity, victory at the same venue where they were first crowned kings of Europe in 1992 was all that stood between the Blaugrana boys and their rightful place among the pantheon of the greatest sides in the history of the game.

Virtually on a weekly basis they have sparkled in Spain, and they took the rest of Europe to task with embarrassing ease. United may have been the ones going into the showpiece unbeaten, but there was little doubt as to who the favourites were.

Guardiola was as magnanimous as ever in victory, playing down talk of his team being the best ever.

"I feel privileged to have these players," he said. "I don't feel like the boss of them. So many people have worked so hard to achieve this and I congratulate everyone.

"It's impossible to say (if they are the best ever) as I didn't see the Madrid of Di Stefano, the Santos of Pele or the Ajax of Cruyff.

"I would just like people to remember us a team that are enjoyable to watch."

Despite United reducing their opponents to just 63 per cent possession - comparatively paltry by their own high standards - Barca had 19 shots (12 on target) to United's four (Wayne Rooney's goal was their only effort on target.

Edwin van der Sar had eight saves to make - six in a second half onslaught that produced the goals which won the game - and still shipped three goals.

It was a sad end to such a glittering career for the Dutchman, but this Barca side has little time for sentiment when it comes to the opposition.

Sentiment is something that runs deep through their own club, however. That does displayed in the touching moment when Puyol allowed Eric Abidal, who started the final just nine weeks after having a tumour removed from his liver, to lift the trophy.

Like the rest of his team, Abidal peaked perfectly as Barca put in their best performance since the tour de force that was the 5-0 drubbing of bitter rivals Real Madrid back in November.

Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta proved just why the most recent shortlist for the Ballon d'Or was a one-club affair.

Iniesta completed 92 per cent of his passes, had three shots on target and claimed an assist, while one of Xavi's 124 passes - more than the entire United midfield - was the perfectly-weighted stab across for Pedro to open the scoring midway through the first half.

And yet, neither of them will get anywhere near the coverage their efforts warrant, and that is to Messi's enormous credit. The little magician finally broke his scoring duck on English soil at the ninth attempt and in some style, befitting of his devastating performance which so often left United flummoxed.

He has now finished top scorer in the Champions League for the third year running having registered more than 50 goals in each of the past two seasons.

It seems unimaginable that anyone will prevent him claiming a third straight Ballon d'Or.

But Messi is about so much more than just statistics. Even the supremely egotistical Cristiano Ronaldo must look at his Pichichi award earned for being this season's top scorer in Spain and feel a little redundant.

The only obstacle to Messi being universally named the best player of all time may well be a lack of a World Cup winner's medal. He still has at least two more chances to put that right. Remember, he is still just 23 years old. Rounding off a glorious campaign by leading Argentina to the Copa America would go some way to instilling belief in the Albiceleste camp that they can achieve glory in Brazil in three years' time.

Of course, judging a greatest player or team of all time is purely subjective and there can never be a single right answer. Only those who saw the Real Madrid side which romped to five straight European Cups and the Ajax side which pioneered total football multiple times in the flesh would be able to give a truly informed answer, and even then there are too many variables to take into account when arriving at a conclusion.

Rather than investing time needlessly in a ranking of teams spanning so many eras in the game, much better to just appreciate Barcelona define this one so magnificently.

As the final whistle approached and they were confident of victory, Barca's fans inside Wembley began chanting "Madrid! Cabron! Saluta al Campeon!"

It is not just their domestic foes who should take heed of the order to salute the European champions, but all who enjoy the game.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "That is one of the most stupid questions I have ever heard... Mascherano." - Ferguson gives short shrift to the question of which single Barca player he would sign given a blank cheque. Guess it would be Messi then.

FOREIGN VIEW: "I wanted to spark a debate about change in FIFA. For the good of football, I wanted the future to be bright for our world's governing body and for it to adapt to the ever-changing world we live in today. However, recent events have left me hurt and disappointed - on a professional and personal level. It saddens me that standing up for the causes that I believed in has come at a great price - the degradation of FIFA's reputation. This is not what I had in mind for FIFA and this is unacceptable." - Mohamed bin Hammam announces his withdrawal from the FIFA presidential race the day before the ethics committee hearing into bribery allegations against him, Jack Warner and Sepp Blatter. It is a shame that, just as Barca are producing such brilliance on the pitch, the farce at the very top of the game continues to bring little but shame off it.

COMING UP: Plenty more Champions League final reaction, including a video of Jim White's verdict on the match. Plus there is live coverage of Huddersfield Town v Peterborough United in the League One play-off final to enjoy at 15:00.

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