Barcelona ease past dejected Manchester United

It was always going to be an uphill task for Manchester United. In fact, it proved an impossible one as Barcelona swept the English champions aside in trademark fashion as they dominated possession and frustrated their opponents as they so often do.

The starting line-ups provided some pre-match discussion. Eric Abidal returned to the Barcelona eleven, 71 days after an operation to remove a life-threatening liver tumour. There was no room in the team for captain Carles Puyol, who Pep Guardiola deemed unfit to start as he has only started 3 times since January.

United’s squad also raised some eyebrows. Top goal-scorer Dimitar Berbatov was a notable absentee, the Bulgarian striker not even on the bench for the English champions. Instead, Sir Alex Ferguson favoured Owen as the substitute striker.

Surprisingly, United started the brighter side. They were in the faces of the Spanish champions, giving them little room for manoeuvre on the ball and forcing careless mistakes you would not normally associate with the Catalans. Barcelona uncharacteristically lacked composure and almost went behind due to a lack of communication between ex-Manchester United defender Gerard Pique and his goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

United lofted a seemingly harmless ball over the Barcelona defence. Valdes came rushing out but was hesitant and unconvincing as an unaware Pique passed the ball into his goalkeeper. Fortunately for Barcelona, the ball rebounded of Valdes’ legs and the Spaniards regained their composure.

After a shaky start, Barcelona began to get into their rhythm. They passed the ball with ease, mesmerising their hapless opponents. Dangerously for United, Lionel Messi was beginning to get a foothold in the game. The Argentinian continues to justify his tag as the best player in the world, perhaps even to some the best player to have graced the game, as he went on one of his dazzling runs only to be denied by a last-ditch tackle from United’s defensive stalwart Vidic.

Manchester United were now on the back-foot like never before. After a start that had promised so much, the English side faded as they became fatigued due to the hypnotic nature of Barcelona’s passing. David Villa began to find space and threatened with two testing shots which almost crept in.

Barcelona outnumbered their opponents in the midfield and captain Xavi exploited their man advantage. The Spanish midfield maestro produced a masterful pass to give Pedro the opportunity to give his side the lead, and the young winger duly obliged, confidently sliding the ball past van der Sar.

Many would have predicted a rout for Barcelona now after they had dominated the possession. However, Manchester United showed fantastic character as they equalised superbly within minutes. In a move their opponents would have been proud of, Rooney exchanged neat passes with Hernandez and Giggs before curling a beautifully executed shot beyond Valdes’ despairing dive.

The goal put United back in with a chance. Barcelona, though, had different ideas. They continued as they had so convincingly started, retaining possession with consummate ease. The Catalans had a great chance to regain their lead as Villa’s teasing cross just escaped the desperate lunge of Lionel Messi.

The score-line suggested United had a chance. In reality, though, they never did.

Barcelona managed to dictate the game even more, something which many would have thought impossible. Javier Mascherano immediately went on a winding run from his half into the United penalty area. Dani Alves was in yards of space, but was denied by a fantastic sprawling save by van der Sar in the Dutch keeper’s final ever game.

Lionel Messi was not quite as wasteful as his teammates in front of goal, predictably. The Argentine was given far too much time and space and he punished United, firing a low shot past the dive of van der Sar who seemed a shade out of position.

United were now on the verge of crumbling. At 2-1, they always had a slim chance of staying in the game. At 3-1, they had no chance, and soon this was the score. Messi again threatened, ghosting past the United challenges as if they were not even there. His cut back, partially intercepted, somehow found its way to David Villa and the Spaniard showed fantastic skill to curl it beyond a hapless van der Sar into the top right-hand corner. There was some doubt about the lack of clearance by Nani which gave Villa the opportunity. There could be no doubt about Villa’s emphatic finish.

Manchester United were dejected now, yet they continued to press forward en masse in the perhaps naive hope of getting back into the game. Ryan Giggs had a seemingly convincing penalty appeal turned down as Villa appeared to handle in his area. Not that it would have made much difference to the outcome of the game.

Barcelona are now four-time champions of Europe, and not even the most ardent United supporter could claim tonight’s triumph was undeserved. Ferguson will take solace in the fact that his side were beaten by arguably the best side in the history of football. In fact, he may even take pride in that fact. Understandably, United fans and players alike will be dejected for some time. They cannot deny, though, that they were totally and utterly outclassed today. Any team in the world would have been, Barcelona were that good.

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