Magical Messi casts his spell on United

Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1: Argentinian fires killer goal before Villa brings the house down for Barca

Manchester United's squad went to watch Jersey Boys on Thursday, hoping to round off their Saturday with 'Oh, What A Night'. Instead the most appropriate theme for an entertaining Champions' League final was the old hit by the Manchester band The Hollies, "On a Carousel". Barcelona's passing carousel, as Sir Alex Ferguson once delineated it, designed to make opponents dizzy, did just that to achieve a victory as comprehensive as in the 2009 final.

The only surprise was that after Pedro put the Spanish champions ahead, United should conjure an equaliser through Wayne Rooney. The fear once Lionel Messi, sublime as ever, and David Villa scored was that the margin could become something of an embarrassment.

Ferguson went with both Javier Hernandez and Rooney in a commendable attempt to exert some pressure but only for 10-minute periods at the start and finish could his team do so. The essential problem was exactly as expected. Messi dropped into midfield, neither centre-half quite dared follow him, and without a natural defensive tiger to harrass him in the mould of Nobby Stiles – or Owen Hargreaves – he was able with Xavi and Andres Iniesta to run the game.

Stiles stifled the great Eusebio, by fair means and foul, when Benfica were beaten 4-1 at the old Wembley to make United European champions for the first time but they had no modern equivalent available. "Spirit of '68" was spelt out by their supporters in a mosaic before the game, but although the spirit was willing enough as ever, endeavour alone cannot defeat this wonderful Barcelona side.

It is true that United have developed a way of playing in Europe, as Ferguson claimed in their unbeaten run to the final, which involved keeping things tighter than usual and counter-attacking more. Yet only Jose Mourinho in the past couple of years has found the way to play Barça, and the Premier League champions were not inclined to neglect their own positive traditions entirely.

Just like two years ago, United were much the faster out of the blocks, pressing to win the ball, then directing it at the heart of the Barça defence, where Javier Mascherano was clearly perceived as something of a weak link. Three times in the first few minutes Park Ji-Sung or the equally energetic Hernandez won possession back deep in the opposition half and twice there were dangerous thrusts to worry Victor Valdes in the Barça goal.

The balance of play and the mood of the night soon changed, however. In the 10th minute it required a fine saving tackle by Rio Ferdinand to stop Villa. Five minutes more and Pedro jabbed Xavi's low cross wide of the near post. Twice in quick succession Villa was allowed to shoot, and Nemanja Vidic emulated Ferdinand's last-ditch tackle as Messi shaped to shoot.

The pressure was building, the statistics recording passes and possession were transformed and in the 27th minute an apparently inevitable goal arrived. Xavi was heavily involved again, waiting calmly until Messi's run distracted United's defenders, permitting Pedro the space he needed before Vidic could reach him.

But if pessimists and Catalans sat back expecting a straightforward repeat of Rome, United were not prepared to. Whether driven on by Ferguson's remonstrations on the touchline or inner pride, they unexpectedly forced a way back into the game by scoring an equaliser within seven minutes. Gratifyingly for the game plan, it stemmed from a Barcelona throw-in on the left from which the ball was regained and moved swiftly in between Michael Carrick and Rooney, then Ryan Giggs – only just onside – and Rooney, who hit it with his right foot well away from Valdes.

Jubilation there may have been in the United section but there were two further warnings even before the interval, first Pedro and then Messi failing by the length of a foot to reach crosses into the six-yard box.

United were sent out early for the second half, only to find Barcelona starting the stronger this time and scoring again after eight minutes. Dani Alves, rampaging forward, was denied by Van der Sar and Patrice Evra headed away a shot by Messi that might have beaten the keeper.

The little Argentinian's next effort did so in a passage of play that summed up the problem he set United all evening. Dropping off Ferdinand and Vidic once more, he received a square pass from Andres Iniesta and before either Park or Evra could close him down, he had thrashed in what was remarkably his first goal in nine appearances on English soil for club and country.

United were being overrun to the extent that a third goal was no surprise. Carrick and the substitute Nani failed to clear before Sergio Busquets set up Villa for a delicious shot curled into the top corner of the net.

Paul Scholes came on for what could be his final appearance and Van der Sar had the last kick of the match and of his career before United were put out of their misery. The hurt will linger but there can be no disgrace in losing to the best side in the world.

Attendance: 87,695

Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)

Man of the match: Xavi

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'