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Saturday, May 30, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Barca put on a show for the ages


LONDON — Manchester United was totally, completely and utterly outclassed.

Christopher Davies

A sentence I have never written in more than 40 years of covering football and one I never believed I would have cause to pen.

Barcelona added a new dimension to the beautiful game in beating United 2-0 in Rome, where United's pursuit of a historical second successive Champions League crown ended in humiliation.

Pep Guardiola's Dream Team made the second best side on the planet seem second rate. United was unbeaten in 25 Champions League games, but brilliant Barcelona was embarrassingly superior.

The blame game nature of football means that we tend to look for negatives rather than positives . . . why a side lost rather than why the opposition won.

It was no disgrace to lose to a side that a few weeks ago thrashed Real Madrid 6-2 in its own backyard. United has still had a wonderful season, winning the Club World Cup, Premier League and League Cup. Those successes plus reaching the Champions League final, where they were beaten by a team that came within touching distance of football perfection, hardly constitute failure.

Sir Alex Ferguson does not experience defeat very often but he had no complaints. "We were beaten by the better team," he said — not that he could have said anything else. A shell-shocked but sporting Ferguson shook hands with the Barcelona players, Guardiola returning the compliment before belatedly joining his delirious squad to celebrate a memorable victory.

Like his team, Guardiola is a class act. He was appointed coach last summer with no senior experience, he offloaded Deco and Ronaldinho and proceeded to fashion one of the truly great sides in European history. Not bad for starters.

The midfield axis of Xavi and Andres Iniesta is not only the best in the world, the pair have a powerful case to be remembered as the best ever. They passed United to death, finding space where there appeared to be none and while they may be overshadowed by the mercurial Lionel Messi, Ferguson acknowledged that "it wasn't so much Messi who troubled us as the others."

Xavi and Iniesta put on a master class of midfield play, two players whose talent and work rate is matched by their humility. Iniesta made the opening goal for Samuel Eto'o, while Xavi crossed for Messi to head his first goal against English opposition in 11 attempts. The Argentine's sense of timing in every respect could not have been better.

With the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo, who became increasingly frustrated at the lack of support he was receiving, not a single United player lived up to his reputation.

Michael Carrick, normally the most reliable of passers, gave the ball away more times in one match than he probably has all season.

Wayne Rooney was isolated on the left, Anderson and Park Ji Sung were hopelessly outplayed by Xavi and Iniesta, and even the introduction of Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez did not trouble a supposedly suspect Barca defense missing three regulars.

Managers learn more about their team from defeat than victory and Ferguson will go away to the south of France for his summer holiday and plan for next season. It is easy to be over-critical after a loss, but United was worryingly devoid of ideas, invention or inspiration — qualities the Catalan team had in abundance.

United may be world champions, but let there be no doubt Barcelona is the best team in the world.

Ferguson will probably need to replace the aging Edwin van der Sar in goal, bring in a playmaker like Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, hope midfield anchorman Owen Hargreaves can regain fitness and stay healthy, plus find someone to replace Tevez, whose third-party owners value the player higher than Ferguson is prepared to pay.

It would be foolish to doubt Ferguson will get it right again because his record proves the Scot makes few mistakes. Losing the final, even to a super team, will have hurt Ferguson but he knows United's opponents are the ones usually in such a position and will be once more next season.

* * * * *

THE SHOWPIECE in Rome will be a hard act for Chelsea and Everton to follow in Saturday's F.A. Cup final.

Comparisons are inevitable, but even before Barcelona made football into an art form Wednesday night I suspected the Wembley matchup would be more about brawn than brain, perspiration rather than inspiration.

Everton and Chelsea have played out two goalless games in the Premier League this season and another closely-contested clash can be expected this time.

Chelsea's midfield trio of Michael Essien, Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack will find themselves matched in the muscle department by Marouane Fellaini, Phil Neville and Leon Osman.

Fellaini has had a superb first season in English football since his transfer from Standard Liege last summer. While 13 yellow cards cannot be condoned, Fellaini's midfield dominance is the sort of presence Arsenal is missing. Do not be surprised if Wembley sees caution No. 14.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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