What a day, what a performance, what a team. Just sublime. Here are some random and unrelated reactions from the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.
1. Neither team can have any complaints about the referee, or the spirit in which the game was played. I know this sounds like something that should be taken for granted, but after hearing whiny Arsenal fans go on and on about a red card for Robin Van Persie — conveniently ignoring two missed penalties and a wrongly disallowed goal for Barcelona preceding that decision — as well as Moudrid fans go on and on about diving and theatrics — conveniently ignoring the thuggishness and outright violence that engendered those theatrics — it was nice to just see a good, clean game of football.
The first half saw only seven fouls between the two teams, virtually unheard of in such a big game (as a comparison, the Spain-Holland World Cup final last year saw 47 fouls). United tired a little bit in the second half, so the fouls started adding up, but there was nothing malicious. You could possibly argue that Valencia should have seen a yellow card earlier (I would), and you could possibly argue that Giggs was offside for Rooney’s goal (I wouldn’t; the benefit of doubt always should go to the attacking side when it’s that close), but on the whole, there were no real juridical flashpoints in this game.
For this, credit should go to Alex Ferguson and the United players. Today was as fantastic advertisement for the sport as the first leg of the semis was a blemish on it. Two excellent teams, that respect each other and played fairly, and the better team won. No recriminations, no endless “por que?” speeches from useless translators, no diving, no crowding the ref, just football. What a relief.
2. I never, ever, EVER want to hear that Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s second best player after today. It’s a really silly argument that treats football like bowling, or darts — it’s not just the “points” you get at the end. As the great Jonathan Wilson has said, goals are overrated. You can’t evaluate a player solely by how many he scores. As fantastic a goal scorer as he is, Ronaldo can not put his imprint on a game — a big game anyway — the way Xavi and Iniesta do regularly.
Put it this way: if those two played for Madrid, and Ronaldo played for Barca, the former would win La Liga and the Champions League. Yes, even if Messi were to stay behind in this hypothetical. Those two are just that good. The sheer weight of honors and awards and trophies they’re piling up (La Liga five of the last seven years, Champions League three of the last six years, Euro 2008, World Cup 2010), and the extraordinarily central role they’ve played in each of them — well, it’s not a coincidence, that’s all I’m saying.
3. After all the nonsense Sergio Busquets has had to put up with in the last month, I’m glad today the world could see how good he is. Is he a bit of a prick, what with the diving and the exaggerating and the rolling around and the face clutching? Yes. Yes, he is. And I challenge you to find me a team that doesn’t have one or two of those types of players.
What his unpopularity masks for some blinkered viewers, however, is this: he is a brilliant, brilliant player. He would walk into any other club or national side in the world, no questions asked. He was my man of the match today. The guy was just everywhere. Any time United threatened, he was there providing cover or breaking up play. Any time Barcelona were transitioning, he was there playing the pass that led to the pass that opened things up. He bombed forward too. Just an all-round masterclass from him today.
4. United’s best player — by far — was Wayne Rooney. I always love reading the comment on Guardian articles on English football. Even though I don’t follow any of the teams week in week out, it gives me a broad sense of what various fan contingents are thinking, collectively.
Anyway, the point is that Rooney catches A LOT of hate in these comments sections by fans of other teams. Is it jealousy? Maybe — the guy is the most talented footballer in England. Is it snobbery? Well, it is the Guardian, and Rooney is a bit of a “chav”, as the English say. Is it betrayal? Rooney did let down all of England with his performances at the World Cup last year, but that had much to do with his too-quick-to-come-back-from-injury issues as anything else. I really don’t know. What I do know is that all of those fans who complain about him and denigrate him would love him on their team, if given the opportunity.
Rooney was really, really good today. I’m not just talking about the goal. His touches, movement and ability to find (and create) space was brilliant.
5. I was a bit bemused with Alex Ferguson’s lineup today, I must confess. In the leadup to the game, I debated with one or two United fans on a couple of topics. One was Hernandez vs Berbatov. I felt that Berbatov was the better option, since he is a more accomplished player technically, and could hold the ball up against pressure better than Hernandez. I could see the logic in playing someone of Hernandez’s pace, but I think he would’ve been better suited to the super-sub-in-the-60th-minute role. Against Barcelona’s pressing and pressure, you need as many ball players as possible, and Berbatov is simply more comfortable with the ball at this feet than Hernandez.
The second was Carrick vs Scholes. I’ve long thought Carrick is a good player but nothing more. He does not seem to be, for lack of a better word, quality. Harsh? Perhaps. But he was out of his depth today, as he was in the 2009 final. Could Scholes have been a better engine-room passer today? Undoubtedly, though I understand the concerns about pairing him with Giggs. I wouldn’t have played Giggs by the way, and not for all the off-field stuff either. I would’ve played a half fit Fletcher, or even Anderson, with Scholes. I defer to the expertise of United fans who watch their team every week, but I will say that all three of Hernandez, Carrick and Giggs were quite useless today.
6. Eric Abidal? Lifting the Champions League trophy as “captain” three months after having a liver tumor removed? Wow. Just wow.
7. Any United fans who are blaming Van der Sar for the second goal also need to account for his excellent saves the rest of the game. It could’ve been 5-1, people. He kept you in the game for large parts of it.
8. Every time Barcelona have taken the field after the six-trophy first year of Pep’s reign, they play against two forces. One is the opposition. The other is history. For better or worse, the style and substance of the 2008-09 team has meant that Pep and Barca have been under extraordinary pressure to not just play well but also to win every game they play. This is because the sheer genius of the team makes it incumbent to start making historical comparisons: just where does this team rank amongst the all-time greats?
It is an impossible question, and one must note it was not asked of Jose’s Inter, even though they won the treble the year after Barca did.
The fact is, a loss for “most” teams is just that: a loss. But a loss for Pep’s team is seen as a demerit, a trip in their race to immortality.
Today, I can safely say Barca have entered the conversation for real. Are they better than di Stefano’s Madrid, Cruyff’s Ajax, Sacchi’s Milan? Who the hell knows. But they belong in the conversation. Pep has won an ungodly ten trophies in three years, including two European Cups and three La Ligas. They play a truly spectacular brand of football — even their worst detract0rs would concede this point — and there is a resilience to this team that was absent in the Rijkaard years. They are one of the best teams the world has ever seen.
9. It was nice to see David Villa really sharp today. I don’t think it was an accident that this was his best performance in about 5 months. He’s almost 30, and the pressing game Pep employs takes A LOT out of you. The squad has been ridiculously thin all year, and injuries to other forwards and strikers such as Bojan and Pedro didn’t help. My view is that he’s just been gassed since about February, which is around the time Barca started playing two games a week almost every week. The two weeks’ rest did him a world of good today, and with the rumored transfer of Giuseppe Rossi from Villareal, he should get more rest next year.
10. [Insert 3000 word ode to Leo Messi; I have nothing left to say about this dude].