James Lawton: Catalans map out a route for Spanish domination
Dazzling possession football that won victory in Rome can deliver the World Cup next year to a nation that is showing even the mighty Premier League how to play
Friday 29 May 2009
Barcelona's historic treble of Champions League and Spanish league and cup is a stunning tribute to the club's enduring belief about the way the game should be played. But it is one that may have to take its place soon enough in wider homage to the soil in which their game has grown – precisely, next summer, when the most feasible guess is that Spain will add the World Cup to the European title they annexed so brilliantly in Vienna last June.
A pattern is forming here. Well, really, it is more a blazing mosaic painted by the skills of such as Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez with their wondrous Argentine helpmate Lionel Messi.
Among other things, it tells us quite how much can happen in a single year of football; how a landscape can be changed so radically the old one is almost beyond recall.
Certainly, as the fans of Barça threw themselves joyously into the Fontana de Trevi here in the small hours of yesterday morning, it was not so easy to remember the mood in Moscow last year after the slugfest between Manchester United and Chelsea. But then if you tried hard enough it did percolate through the prism of Barcelona's beautiful display of exquisite and inventive ball control. It centred on the awed reaction of a Spanish observer in the Luzhniki Stadium to the pace and the pummelling pressure produced by both teams before United's shoot-out victory. "My God," said the Spaniard, "only English football could produce such football at this level."
Then, it seemed that the mastery of the world's wealthiest league was just about complete. There were no awkward questions about how much it was contributing to the growth of the England team, how much beauty it was bestowing beyond the consistently aggressive play of United and the flickering brilliance of Arsenal. The Premier League, we were told, had created its own, dominant world. The trouble with this, as we saw so indisputably at the Stadio Olimpico this week, was that Barcelona had another idea, another dream.
Some no doubt will claim that the status quo would very likely have been maintained if Uefa had appointed a passably competent referee for the second leg of the semi-final at Stamford Bridge, and there is no question Chelsea all but obliterated Barcelona's magic until the moment Iniesta rescued his team with that late strike.
It is also true that Chelsea did turn up to play, while United abandoned the project here as soon as Barça made their first, brilliant strike. But then perhaps we should consider for a moment exactly how Chelsea played. It was a spoiling game that almost worked but at no time did they seem to abandon their fear of the potential of their opponents to rip them apart. How else can we explain the decision to haul off Didier Drogba and replace him with a defender after Barcelona, through another refereeing mistake, were reduced to 10 men with nearly half an hour to go?
Chelsea played Barcelona in the only way they could and it nearly succeeded, but if they were casualties of fate, surely, we saw here, the great beneficiary was football – and our sense of what it can still mean in the hearts of all those who watch it.
Sir Alex Ferguson was as generous in defeat as he was irritated by a question about the appetite for competition at the highest level he and his team retained after the imperious nature of Barça's victory. No doubt his disappointment at the failure of any of his players to produce the kind of performance he expected had gone deep into his bones – and equally certain is the fact that some United reputations, notably those of Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick, will need some brisk refurbishment at the start of next season.
Ryan Giggs, no doubt, deserved his career achievement award as PFA Footballer of the Year – perhaps he should, on that one occasion, have been announced as footballer of the years – but this surely was his last hurrah in a game of such magnitude. His influence, like all of his colleagues except, in the early going, Cristiano Ronaldo, was almost non-existent, and, sadly, Paul Scholes might easily have ended his magnificent career with a red card in one of the most important matches he has played.
However, while United nurse their wounds, Barcelona are entitled to admire their battle ribbons.
Not only have they hoarded their own silverware, they have given Spain the foundation for a golden epoch. It is no doubt true that, club for club, strength for strength, the Premier League remains the most competitive league, but La Liga is fuelled now by the oxygen of the best football produced anywhere in the world. Even the idealistic Arsène Wenger thought that the romance of Barça's game would ultimately run aground under the physical weight of English football at its most pressurised and disciplined. But he was wrong in the way that probably, deep down, he had hoped his own critics would be dismayed.
Again, we can expect plenty of disputatious reaction along the Kings Road, but its most passionate arguers will perhaps understand if they are somewhat isolated in their mourning.
Certainly, there is no sense here that the wrong team finished up with the greatest trophy offered by club football. Barcelona, let's not forget, were claiming the prize for the second time in four years – and on precisely the same terms negotiated by the brilliant Josep Guardiola's predecessor, Frank Rijkaard.
They were doing it with the most profound commitment to the beauty of football. No, agreed Guardiola, Barça are not a finished article; they need, as a priority, to strengthen their defence, but then it also has to be remembered that they played here without three key members of it – the equivalent of United coming in without Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra.
It meant that they simply had to play to their greatest strength, a sublime ability to hold the ball and use it with all of their imagination. The result was more than one club's memorable triumph. It was an endorsement of the belief that, from time to time, the purpose of football is to light up the world.
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