The champions of England will come again in Europe, will hit back next season, and empires can rise as well as fall in Rome, but on Wednesday night nothing could console the United supporters, who were treated to a truly dreadful performance by the team.
United were careless in possession, uncertain in defence and blunt in attack. None of Sir Alex Ferguson’s stars shone. As the inquests begin, as the carcass of United’s embarrassing defeat is picked over, the tactics employed by Ferguson will inevitably come under the severest of scrutiny. His decision to start Ryan Giggs in the hole backfired, leaving Michael Carrick and Anderson badly exposed. Given the stage, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and the special Lionel Messi ran the show.
Chasing the game after Samuel Eto’o scored, Ferguson naturally had to introduce more attackers but Carrick resembled a fireman facing a large fire with a short hose. United was virtually playing the Polo formation – nothing in the middle – and Barcelona soon added a second, this time headed in by Messi, who ended the debate over who was the better player on the planet.
After a bright beginning, Cristiano Ronaldo was too subdued. Although everyone at Old Trafford expects Ronaldo to stay, there were times in the closing stages when this frustrated figure seemed intent on making himself even more appealing to Real Madrid. Resplendent all in white, Ronaldo twice took out Barcelona’s captain, Carles Puyol, earning a booking.
Paul Scholes, late to the game and even later to Sergio Busquets, was also booked for his nasty clattering of the Barcelona midfielder. Victims of such ugly challenges made the Catalans even worthier winners before an audience who had anticipated more of a contest.
It seemed the world had stopped turning, that everyone had either flocked to Italy’s congested capital or were tuning in. The traffic was chaos, the mood good-humoured, the sun losing its venom. Royalty, blue-blooded and footballing, filled the smart seats from Prince William to Michel Platini, their gaze soon mesmerised by the action flowing from the top two teams from the top two leagues.
Deceptively, United had been the first to show, flying from the traps, eager to impose their game. Ronaldo adopted a shoot-on-sight policy, threatening a hat-trick in the first 10 minutes yet, like an experienced heavyweight, Barcelona absorbed the blows and struck back with their first attack.
Until Eto’o shook United’s aura of invincibility, the omens had appeared good for the huge travelling Red Army, particularly with a victory in the 5.15 at Lingfield for Last Three Minutes, Ferguson’s horse named after epic events at Camp Nou 10 years ago.
Hope filled United hearts. Ronaldo was lively, although rather too selfish for some tastes. First, the European Footballer of the Year tested Victor Valdes with an early free-kick. Caught out by the ball’s pace and movement, Barcelona’s keeper failed to hold it and suddenly the loose ball was up for grabs. As Ji-sung Park dived in, Gerard Pique reached it fractionally quicker, clearing for a corner. Even when under pressure, Barcelona’s attacking intent was inescapable: Guardiola left three players up, Messi, Thierry Henry and Andres Iniesta.
Still United menaced, Ronaldo firing two shots wide but Guardiola was tweaking his front-line, switching Messi and Eto’o. Suddenly, the little Argentinian magician was through the middle, and United seemed distracted. Iniesta darted into a pocket of space, releasing the ball down the inside-right channel.
Eto’o was off and running, cutting in towards goal, embarrassing Vidic with the speed and angle of his attack. Voted Player of the Year by United’s footballers and fans alike, Vidic has enjoyed a magnificent season but endured a Torres moment here. As Michael Carrick slid in, as Edwin van der Sar threw himself across, Eto’o flicked the ball with his right foot between the keeper and the post. Disaster.
United’s defence had been cut to pieces, by Iniesta’s pass, by Eto’s dart and finish. As the Cameroonian ran to the corner-flag, tears welling in his eyes, Rio Ferdinand sought to lift United’s spirits. The English fans responded, willing the team on, backing them loudly as the pride of Old Trafford were given a lesson by Barcelona.
The eye kept being drawn to the darting box of tricks that was Messi, who dribbled past Carrick and Vidic, was knocked over, jumped up and kept going. Here was the "courage to play’’ that Ferguson had talked of. Messi’s blue boots were everywhere, striking dread into United hearts, one minute skipping away from Ferdinand, the next playing one-two’s with Iniesta. Sensational.
United simply could not get hold of the ball. Barcelona’s pressing was relentless. When Ji-sung Park sought to turn and pass, a swarm of Catalans blocked the Koreans’ path. When Carrick strived to work the ball through the middle, Xavi nipped in to nick the ball. Iniesta was immense.
Ferguson’s tactical surprise, playing a 4-2-3-1 system with Ryan Giggs in the hole behind Ronaldo, was simply not working. The game was passing Giggs by, leaving Ronaldo isolated and frustrated upfront. Similar negative emotions seeped into Rooney out on the left. Ferguson had told him to assist Evra in extinguishing the fire that is Messi but Barcelona’s No 10 was moving across the front line, burning United wherever he drifted.
Anderson looked a little boy lost; usually so vibrant, the Brazilian was bypassed constantly by Iniesta and Xavi. Giggs could have been taken off at the break but it was little surprise when Ferguson withdrew Anderson and sent on Tevez, who arrived to a rapturous reception from the United faithful. Ferguson gambled with his reworked tactics, 4-2-4 with Giggs and Carrick soon overwhelmed in midfield.
United lived dangerously. When John O’Shea was caught forward, Thierry Henry ran into space and only Van der Sar’s reflexes denied Barcelona a second. It almost arrived when Xavi bent in a free-kick that almost snapped Van der Sar’s left-hand post. As United fans held their breath, the ball bounced clear.
Much of United’s passing was poor, gifting possession to opposition celebrated for cherishing it. Carrick was particularly culpable yet there had to be sympathy for him, effectively facing Barcelona’s mighty midfield with only Giggs for company.
United’s formation effectively became 4-1-5 when Dimitar Berbatov arrived. The Bulgarian went up top, Ronaldo moved left, Rooney right with Giggs and Tevez in the hole.
Barcelona are not all sweetness and light; some Catalan dark arts were witnessed with their bench kicking spare balls on, a stunt that angered Ronaldo so much he smashed one back at the Barcelona dug-out. Ronaldo’s mood deteriorated further when Xavi crossed the right, the ball clearing Ferdinand and there was Messi, the shortest player on the pitch, rising high to loop a header over Van der Sar.