James Lawton: Failure to build on Roman triumph reduces Catalan claims to greatness

Against an Arsenal side largely outplayed and reduced to 10 men, Barcelona only made it through because Nicklas Bendtner missed a simple late chance
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In the late-night cafes of the Via Veneto in the city where confirming a miracle is just another day's work, the buzz was that indeed the day had brought something supernatural.

Barcelona had conquered Rome. They had not just beaten Manchester United but played in another dimension, maybe indeed brushed against football eternity.

Lionel Messi, the astonishingly gifted superstar nurtured as a boy with growth hormones, had even jumped higher than big defenders to score the killer goal.

The promise of a year earlier in Vienna, where Barça had supplied the core of the team that gave Spain their first major tournament in 44 years, had been fulfilled. The World Cup in South Africa, duly delivered, would be the underpinning of a football empire which many would soon claim was the greatest in the history of the game.

But is it? We will know a little better at Wembley tomorrow night but even as Barça's odds shorten to evens – against United's 12-5 – there is some reason for caution, especially in the rush to anoint Barcelona as a club without a historic rival.

Graeme Souness, a hard-headed critic if we ever heard one and a key figure in a superb Liverpool European Cup-winning team, leads the acclaim. He swears that not only are Barça the best team he has ever seen but that Messi has outstripped Diego Maradona, who by common consent came closer than any other player to winning a World Cup single-handedly in Mexico in 1986. Souness says his favourite daydream is living in Barcelona and holding a season ticket for the Nou Camp.

He would have found it hard to pick an argument that night on the terrace of Harry's Bar in Rome, but now surely there must be some murmurings of doubt?

The truth is that if Barcelona are capable of exquisitely rhythmic football, if they have in Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi an axis of dazzling creativity, they have also fallen some way short of the yardstick they fashioned for themselves two years ago.

Yes, they played a huge part in delivering Spain's World Cup in Johannesburg, yes, they mopped up La Liga again, but did the Spanish triumph begin to match the sublime authority of Brazil in 1970 or the dynamic impact of Maradona 16 years later also in Mexico City? Hardly. Spain scored eight goals, 11 fewer than Pele's Brazil, despite playing one game more, and six fewer than Argentina in 1986 – five if you don't count the contribution of the "Hand of God".

In Rome, the fact that United had scarcely begun to play was discounted briskly enough. The picture painted was exclusively in the hues of the new champions of football, the team whose influence would touch every corner of the game. Yet within a year Jose Mourinho was successfully parking a bus manned by an Internazionale team who would prove quickly enough incapable of reproducing such powers of destruction.

It is also true that, if Barça have returned to the peak of European football to restate their case as the nonpareils of the ages, they have lost at least some of the lustre handed to them so quickly.

They have yet to match the ascendancy of some of their champion predecessors, including Liverpool, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Milan and Real Madrid. In the semi-final legs against Mourinho's crippled reincarnation of Real, Barcelona won through with bursts of trademarked football, but not before a descent into some of the grubbiest gamesmanship seen even in this age of institutionalised cheating.

Of course, there is all-time glory in the work of Pep Guardiola, the coach who has created the truly miraculous image of a football man who believes in the beauty of football for its own sake. In Messi, Iniesta and Xavi he has superb lieutenants, but the idea that his team is both unmatchable and immaculately conceived has received some not inconsiderable buffeting since victory in Rome.

Internazionale barred the road to last season's Madrid final, and on the way drew from Sergio Busquets a piece of cheating that is still hard to dislodge from the memory. This time, against an Arsenal side largely outplayed and reduced, outrageously, to 10 men by the dismissal of Robin van Persie, they made it through only because Nicklas Bendtner missed a simple chance in the last moments.

These are not the credentials of a team of the ages, one of authority and composure and striking ability which many would attribute more readily to the Milan of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. A similar argument might perhaps be made on behalf of the Bayern Munich of Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller.

Bayern, like Barça in Rome, were presented as the team of their age – and maybe the ages – when they won the European Cup in 1974, having two years earlier supplied the nucleus of the West German European Championship-winning team. After winning the European Cup, six Bayern players went on to beat the Netherlands in the World Cup final in Munich. Here, surely, was a new empire of historic influence, and the argument has the backing of three straight European Cup wins.

There is no disparagement of Guardiola's Barça in the making of such a point, only the suggestion that some of the highest hopes of that night in Rome have yet to be fulfilled. It might well be that Messi and his friends will impale the doubters at Wembley, that United, even if they conjure the best of their game and their fighting natures, are heading into a firestorm of brilliance.

The point here, though, is that Barcelona do carry the burden of proving their greatness. United merely have to do something that is plainly still within their powers, non-vintage championship year or not. It is to compete in such a way that we know can frustrate and make anxious their hugely exalted opponents. It happened to Barça, after all, the last time they were in London, when they were beaten 2-1 by Arsenal.

A fine team of beautiful talent, it is easy to say. But are they unbeatable? The record and instinct say no. For United, certainly, it is reasonable to imagine that something less than a miracle might just do.