Ferguson left to fear similar humiliations in years to come

Manchester United 1 Barcelona 3: United manager's wish to increase European tally on hold as he admits Barça brilliance

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Even the previously jaunty carnation on Sir Alex Ferguson's lapel seemed to droop as the Manchester United manager stood on the pitch at the end on Saturday evening, hands in pockets, waiting for the moment when he and his team would be summoned for their losers' medals and then, finally, be free to get the hell out of there.

How to describe the United players on the Wembley turf after the final whistle? It was not the usual pose of defeated finalists, scattered exhausted around the pitch like battlefield survivors. There were no histrionics and no demonstrations of anger or sorrow for the cameras. Instead they stood around, alone or in small groups, exuding a rare sense of embarrassment.

Manchester United players are not used to being humbled but that is exactly what happened on Saturday. Put simply, Barcelona all but refused United admission to their own final. And that is how they looked at the end: like a sheepish bunch of teenage lads turfed out of their local nightclub and with nowhere to go but home.

To lose a final is bad enough. To lose it in such a one-sided fashion is even worse. But to contemplate the possibility that the same could happen next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, is enough to break the natural ebullience of even the likes of Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand.

When United lost to Barcelona in 2009, they despaired at having missed the opportunity to win the club's fourth European Cup – and become the first team in Champions League history to win it in two consecutive seasons. At the end of Saturday night that fear was deeper, it was the fear that Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Pedro Rodriguez et al might have a stranglehold on this competition for years.

Because, whoever United sign this summer, Wesley Sneijder, Ashley Young, David De Gea or Alexis Sanchez – and however well United acquit themselves – the fear remains that lying in wait for them in May, or even earlier, will be Barcelona. A team so far ahead of this United side that they threaten to overshadow the best of what Ferguson and this side of his have left in them.

The United manager said as much on Saturday night when he forced himself to contemplate the future for Barcelona. "I think that great teams do go in cycles. And the cycle Barcelona are in at the moment is the best in Europe, no question about that. How long it lasts, whether they can replace that team at some point – they certainly have the philosophy.

"It's always difficult to find players like Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and Messi all the time. Probably not [the chance that Barca could discover a new generation]. But they're enjoying the moment that they have just now."

It was said without bitterness and with a scarcely concealed envy of what Guardiola has at his disposal. Goodness knows, Ferguson has achieved so much in establishing United as the pre-eminent team of English football, but you cannot help think that 18 years since he smashed through Liverpool's dominance in domestic football he has run into another, even more formidable, road-block to his ambitions.

Ferguson has always said that he intended to write United's name into the history of European football alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax and, now, Barcelona. It is his misfortune that his best years as a manager in Europe have coincided with the emergence of the best team in two decades, possibly ever.

Against a lesser Barcelona team, United might have won these two finals of 2009 and Saturday evening and we would now be talking about them as Liverpool's equals with five European Cups and Ferguson out on his own with four, more than any other manager in history. As it is they seem further away than ever.

Ferguson is right when he says that Barcelona cannot ride this wave forever. But they seem a long way from falling off. Bear in mind that the likes of Sergio Busquets, 22, and Pedro Rodriguez, 23, are both Guardiola prodigies from his days as Barca B manager. Messi is just 23, Gerard Pique, 24, and only Xavi and Eric Abidal from Saturday's starting line-up are in their 30s.

The average age of the outfield players in Barca's team was 26 years and five months. For their United counterparts it was 27 years and about 10 months. There is no doubt that United's cash reserves mean they can strengthen this summer but then so will Barcelona. It is expected they will sign the former United man Giuseppe Rossi from Villarreal to provide competition for David Villa and Pedro.

This remains a tremendous season from United but, as their manager pointed out, there is nothing in second place for a club of United's stature. "We have a challenge with Barcelona – we all do," Ferguson said. "It's no consolation being the second-best team. I don't enjoy being second-best. Any club with the history we have – Real Madrid, Milan – they'd say the same."

There were two brief windows for United on Saturday to change the course of the game. The first was in their flurry of attacks in the opening stages when they made Pique and Javier Mascherano look vulnerable in defence. And then, after Rooney equalised with 11 minutes of the first half to play. "When we got the lifeline from Wayne, I expected us to do better in the second half," Ferguson said. "But it wasn't to be."

On both occasions Barça simply took hold of the game and refused to let go. The passing statistics tell their own story. Xavi, Iniesta and Messi completed four more passes (305) than the whole United team managed. The pattern repeated itself over and over. United strung two or three passes together but, come the next, they would be under pressure and losing control of the ball.

Rooney's goal – an exchange with Michael Carrick and then Ryan Giggs – was brilliant, but it had to be. Pedro's opening goal was made by Xavi's pass. The second was an extraordinary finish by Messi and the third, from Villa, was much the same. It was telling that Ferguson never left his seat in the second half. Like his team, he too had just run out of answers.

Scorers: Manchester United Rooney 34. Barcelona Pedro 27, Messi 54, Villa 69.

Substitutes: Man Utd Nani (Fabio, 69), Scholes (Carrick, 77). Unused Kuszczak (gk), Owen, Anderson, Smalling, Fletcher. Barcelona Keita (Villa, 86), Puyol (Alves, 88), Afellay (Pedro, 90). Unused Olazabal (gk), Bojan, Adriano, Alcantara.

Booked: Man Utd Carrick, Valencia. Barcelona Alves, Valdes.

Man of match Messi

Match rating 8/10.

Possession: Man Utd 37% Barcelona 63%

Attempts on target: Man Utd 1 Barcelona 12

Referee V Kassai (Hungary)

Attendance 87,695.

Multiple champions

Barcelona have now been crowned as European champions on four occasions:



Nine Real Madrid

1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002

Seven Milan

1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007

Five Liverpool

1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005

Four Ajax

1971, 1972, 1973, 1995

Bayern Munich

1974, 1975, 1976, 2001

Barcelona

1992, 2006, 2009, 2011

Three Internazionale

1964, 1965, 2010

Manchester United

1968, 1999, 2008

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