Sir Alex Ferguson lingered just long enough to say a few gracious words to the Barcelona president, Joan Laporta, on the losers' rostrum and from a distance it looked like the Manchester United manager had just described the new European champions as incredible. He might have chosen any one of few words: awesome, unplayable, masterful.
You cruel men of Rome: a Barcelona team who reduced the best of the Premier League to a pile of rubble. Ferguson's men were run out of town last night, hapless bystanders against the best team in the world. Not the greatest match of all time, not even close, but this was the kind of Champions League final victory that every great coach craves: the figurative cigars lit, dominance in every department.
To United belonged the first 10 minutes; as for the rest, it was all Barcelona after a goal from Samuel Eto'o. For the Scotsman who sought to become an emperor in Rome this goal on 10 minutes was a mortal blow, a case of Et tu, Eto'o? From that blow United were down but it was Josep Guardiola's team who magnificently established themselves as superior to United up to and beyond the moment that Lionel Messi scored the second on 70 minutes.
Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo? United's winger threatened in the first 10 minutes to have the game of his life with a free-kick that was sent skipping awkwardly at Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal. And then he dipped alarmingly from view, surfacing rarely before finally he landed an elbow on the top of Carles Puyol's head to get booked. The last we saw of him he was getting a consoling cuddle from Italy's Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, one of the few men in the stadium more self-regarding than the United winger.
This was a beautiful encore to the Catalans' miraculous season which has included the treble of league, cup and Champions League – the first team from their country ever to win all three in a single season. It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Barcelona are light years ahead of United – although they were last night – but it must trouble Ferguson that his team succumbed so badly on this, the occasion of his first defeat in five European finals as a manager.
What happened to United? They chased the game like an overwrought Under-14s team, unable to keep the ball away from that glorious triumvirate of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Messi. They created none of the claustrophobia that Chelsea maintained to keep Guardiola's team at bay for 93 minutes in the semi-final, second leg at Stamford Bridge this month: a game that remains the best template for doing so.
There were shades of England's humbling at the hands of a Spain team led by Xavi and Iniesta in February. For 10 minutes, as United kept Barcelona penned within their own half, they looked like the high-tempo bullies they have proved all season, Barcelona like some mid-table Premier League roadkill. And then the goal from Eto'o changed everything.
Iniesta was given enough space to play in Eto'o down the right of the United area where he glided past the most timid of challenges from Nemanja Vidic. Michael Carrick, who had followed the ball from Iniesta's foot, slid in to try to retrieve it but Eto'o beat Edwin van der Sar at his near post.
From then on Ferguson grasped at different variations on a formation that did not work. He went from the orthodox 4-3-3, with Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung either side of Ronaldo, to a 4-4-2 system. Then at half-time he brought on Carlos Tevez for the ineffectual Anderson and switched Rooney from left to right, where he looked no happier. By the end of the game, with Dimitar Berbatov on the pitch, United were in a 4-2-4 formation and definitely no better off.
United never grasped the key, which was controlling the threat of Xavi and Iniesta. They never put enough pressure on a Barcelona defence that was woefully under-strength and which, after 16 minutes had Gerard Pique on a booking for blocking Ronaldo's run. After that initial free-kick from Ronaldo in the first 10 minutes it was hard to remember a single save that Valdes was required to make.
There were some wretched performances among a United team that has swept all before it in England this season. Most notably Park, who looked out of his depth. Anderson was engulfed by the passing movement between the Barcelona shirts. Carrick did his best, but he too must have been having flashbacks to Seville in February and the fearful geometry of those Spanish passing moves.
Watching it from the bench must have been an exquisite kind of pain for Ferguson. Barcelona played their football in the United half and, unfortunately for United, so did they. A Rooney cross on 56 minutes was too strong for Ronaldo and bounced over Park's head. At the start of the second half Thierry Henry had turned Rio Ferdinand inside out down the left and was stopped only when the United defender poked out a hopeful leg.
In the 51st minute Iniesta mooched through the middle of their defence and was brought down. Xavi clipped the free-kick against the left post of Van der Sar's goal. It seemed to say that Barcelona would score whenever they decided and in time they did.
On 70 minutes, Puyol won the ball in the right-back position, he found Xavi who had as much time as he needed to drop the ball sweetly on to the head of Messi. He may stand at just 5ft 7in but with Ferdinand and John O'Shea yards away it did not matter. The Argentine looped his header over Van der Sar and the whole thing was over.
Ronaldo elbowed Puyol and was booked. Paul Scholes was lucky to stay on the pitch after a tackle that almost cut Sergi Busquets in half. But very soon United were heading for the exit as the celebrations began, going down the steps into the subterranean dressing rooms, descending into their own kind of personal hell.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Puyol, Touré, Pique, Sylvinho; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta (Rodriguez, 89); Messi, Eto'o, Henry (Keita, 71). Substitutes not used: Pinto (gk), Caceres, Gudjohnsen, Krkic, Muniesa.
Manchester United (4-3-3): Van der Sar; O'Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Anderson (Tevez, h-t), Carrick, Giggs (Scholes, 75); Park (Berbatov, 66), Ronaldo, Rooney.
Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Nani, R da Silva, Evans.
Referee: M Busacca (Switzerland).
Recovered from nervy start as United failed to exploit his weakness on crosses 6/10
Rarely used at right-back, kept Rooney quiet and almost scored with head 8
Filling in at the back, was happier on the ball than when facing Ronaldo's thrusts 6
Terrific early block on Park built confidence. Booked for blatant block on Ronaldo 7
Former Arsenal man did well against Park and then Rooney. One great cross for Eto'o 7
Denied a goal by the post but set up Messi with a superb cross. Excellent as ever 8
Youngest member of the side, bypassed at Stamford Bridge, but more confident here 7
Belatedly recognised as real deal, set up first goal splendidly. Was a constant threat 8
Started on the right and unlike at Chelsea, stayed there. Took his goal very well 7
Dropped off cleverly into space. Won battle with Ronaldo and deserved his goal 8
Lost to Barça three years ago, linked up well with old Arsenal team-mate Sylvinho 7
Substitutes: Keita (for Henry, 71) Kept things tight as Barcelona cruised to deserved victory 6
Edwin van der Sar
Shell-shocked by early goal; kicking, handling suspect for a while. Better late on 6/10
First-choice right-back despite competition, lost Henry once or twice in a good duel 6
Messi dropping deep gave him the dilemma: should I stay or go? Lost him for the goal 6
United's Player of the Year was caught out badly for Eto'o's goal, allowing him inside 5
Faced Eto'o more than Messi but struggled. Poor clearance led to second Barça goal 4
Taking on this midfield is a difficult task for any playmaker. Passing not accurate enough 5
Impressive at season's end but unable to get into this game. Lasted only a half 4
The 35-year-old captain came in for Darren Fletcher. Not influential, missed good chance 5
Almost scored to make up for disappointment of missing out last year but well held overall 5
Performance of two halves: great shooting early on but then faded badly. Booked 6
After quiet first half on the left swapped wings and put some better crosses in. Frustrated 5
Substitutes: Tevez (for Anderson, 69) Chased everything 6; Dimitar Berbatov (for Park, 65) Weak 5; Paul Scholes (for Giggs, 74) 5
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