United beaten by brilliant Barcelona

Barcelona 2 Manchester United 0

Manchester United discovered what it is like to lose a European Cup final as brilliant Barcelona ruled Rome.

If there is any consolation in failure to become the first side to retain the trophy in the Champions League era, it is that they lost to a side as fluent and brilliant to watch as they are.

Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi scored the goals either side of half-time but to single those two out for special praise would be unfair on their team-mates, and particularly Xavi, who was simply awesome.

For once Cristiano Ronaldo could provide no magic of his own, instead getting increasingly frustrated as defeat loomed.

It was a shame really. Although having done so much damage to others down the years, he does now know how it feels.

Twenty four hours earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson had spoken of reaching into the far corners of his brain for an inspiring word or two prior to kick-off.

As half-time approached, that same grey matter might have preferred a word or two about Barcelona's performance.

Sublime would have been one. Bewitching, mesmerising would do equally as well. For a football man like Ferguson it would have been a joy to watch if his side were not the ones trying to stop it.

The kind of football that allowed the Catalans to hit six goals past Real Madrid at the Bernabeu Stadium last month was not in evidence for the first eight minutes or so as United held sway.

However, once it began to emerge, Ferguson's side had precious few answers.

The shape of the contest might have been so different had Park Ji-sung been able to snaffle the rebound after Victor Valdes had failed to hold a stinging Ronaldo free-kick.

Instead, former United man Gerard Pique shot across to block what proved to be his old club's best opportunity of that opening period.

Like his team, Ronaldo was clearly in the ascendancy in his personal duel with Messi.

How rapidly things changed. In the twinkling of an eye Andres Iniesta, one of the brightest starts in the Barcelona firmament, slipped a pass to Eto'o.

The Cameroon striker cut inside Nemanja Vidic, then held off Michael Carrick as he prodded the ball goalward with enough strength to take it past Edwin van der Sar.

Suddenly the strategy of containment and hitting at pace on the counter-attack suggested by the inclusion of Park and the exclusion of Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov did not look such a good idea.

Ferguson's team shot across the pitch, able to do little more than firefight as Messi, Iniesta and Xavi lit bonfires all around.

Had a Messi flick found Eto'o in the area, it would have probably brought Barcelona's second. Rio Ferdinand's agility saved his team.

Xavi curled a free-kick just wide, Vidic pumped the ball away after Van der Sar had failed to hold a cross shot, the slick passing wearing United down all the while.

The arrival of Tevez at half-time had to come, and with it a more overtly offensive approach.

Yet in taking such bold action, Ferguson knew he was playing right into Barcelona's hands.

Xavi picked out Thierry Henry with a brilliant pass. The former Arsenal star cut inside Ferdinand with ease but could not find the finish, a similar mistake to the one that proved so costly for Arsenal in Paris three years ago.

When Xavi saw his free-kick come thumping back off a post, memories of 1999 and the mauling United nearly took at the hands of Bayern Munich sprang to mind.

Yet this was different. Ferguson's team were poor until the unforgettable ending. This time they were simply ripped apart by the only team on the planet who can match them.

The introduction of Berbatov midway through the second half was effectively Ferguson throwing his book of tactics out of the window and not worry about the consequences if it all went wrong.

Sadly it did. Quite quickly as Xavi's curling cross dropped perfectly for Messi, who guided his header over Van der Sar.

Ronaldo's world player of the year crown was slipping and Valdes managed to get in the way of a close-range effort that would have given United some hope, as would the volley from Berbatov that followed.

Berbatov had another chance too, although by then Carles Puyol had seen two efforts saved by Van der Sar.

In truth, the Dutchman was his side's best player, which just about says it all.

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