James Lawton: Beautiful Barça strip the fallen of their crown

Click to follow

To call Barcelona the champions of Europe this morning is to give them their lesser title. The one they demand, unquestionably, is champions of football.

Champions of the game that can, even in this high-pressure age of super athleticism and grinding work assignments, still be exquisite. The margin of victory was two goals but the gap between the ambitions, and the execution, of the two teams touched on infinity.

In the end the goals of Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi, who outshone a petulant Cristiano Ronaldo quite utterly, merely scraped the surface of Barcelona's superiority. Those of us who doubted the iron content of their constitution, could only watch with a degree of awe – and book ourselves a little stint of self-mockery.

United, we believed, were filled with confidence. They had a plan and the steel, but long before the end the plan was in ruins and the steel might have been another form of plastic.

Sir Alex Ferguson came here an emperor in search of another coronation. But he left a wiser man – and one still more appreciative of football's capacity to cause both enchantment and shock. The crown, certainly, belonged this night to his young and idealistic and marvellously vindicated rival Josep Guardiola. It will, a neutral football world must hope, be worn for some time.

Confirmation of Dimitar Berbatov's exclusion from the starting line-up was the anticipated statement of Ferguson's hard intent: ground-devouring force before languid skill.

Berbatov had spent some time explaining that he really is passionate about the cause, but plainly his manager on this occasion preferred his own reading of body language. The roar of Rooney's lung-power and the legs of Park Ji-Sung and Anderson were the old wolf's banker investment on this balmy night beside the Tiber.

Of course there was also Ronaldo, in a now familiar brooding mode as he entered the stadium with his status as the world's best footballer never having been so directly challenged. Messi, the gilded contender, also seemed deep in his thoughts when he arrived shortly before Eusebio, the great Benfica player who in 1968 came so close to beating United in their first European Cup final. "Are you a United fan now," he was asked and he replied, with a face as solemn as the one he had when he left the Wembley field all those years ago, "No, I like United and I like Barcelona, but I'm a fan of football and this should be a great match."

It should have been indeed, and in some respects it unfolded that way but after just 10 minutes all the confidence Ferguson brought here, all his belief that he had the stronger legs, the stronger hearts and an almost infinitely stronger defence, was critically undermined.

It was the work of Andres Iniesta, Barça's saviour at Stamford Bridge a few weeks ago, and Eto'o, who on the same occasion was scarcely visible anywhere near the trenches.

Here he exploded into them so ferociously he might have been armed with a hand grenade. Iniesta did the donkey work in the style of the thoroughbred he has been impersonating for some years now – after Michael Carrick, entering a first-half nightmare that would be imposed with increasing touch and confidence by the network of Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Messi, lost control of the ball. Iniesta ran 40 yards, with ever-increasing assurance, before slipping the ball to Eto'o.

The rest was a grim formality for United as Eto'o went by Nemanja Vidic as though he didn't exist and coolly beat Edwin van der Sar at the near post. You could see so much life draining away from United at that moment of devastation. For a few minutes Ferguson's plan had shown every sign of working as United went at Barça in waves. The effect on the men who had been enchanting so much of the football world for so long was so disconcerting Guardiola found it necessary to rush into the technical area with cries of reassurance.

He put them away quickly enough, though, when Iniesta and Eto'o manufactured their tranquilliser. Merlin couldn't have done better. The whole balance of the game was changed. Messi's presence became a little more apparent with each new moment. United sucked in their breath each time he took possession of the ball and by half-time Ferguson's face was harrowed by concern.

He was supposed to have the superior defence and the stronger runners but what he didn't have was Barça's capacity to perform outright artistry under the closest attention.

It meant that at half-time Ferguson had to do rather more than rally his troops. He had to redefine their point – and their purpose. He also, not too surprisingly, decided he had to bring on Carlos Tevez, in place of the ineffectual Anderson.

Tevez, naturally, responded with huge effort and one pass that sent Rooney away along the right was United's most penetrating moment for a good half-hour. However, the worry was that Barça, who saw Xavi's free-kick smack against a post early in the second half, had by now just found too many reasons to believe in themselves.

It was a concern heavy enough for Ferguson to dismantle much of his original strategy with 25 minutes to go. Berbatov, earlier judged too passive for the assault that United had planned, came on for the pure runner Park. It seemed like a last throw and there was reason enough to believe it was when Xavi, noting that almost the entire United defence had gone missing, sent a towering cross into the path of the 5ft 7in Messi. It was not the greatest shock of the night that the Little Big Man met it beautifully to arch the ball past Van der Sar.

It would be comfortable to say the champions of England were beaten. Unfortunately, though, it ran a little deeper than that. They had been undressed and outclassed by the most beautiful team in all of football.