FEATURE | Barcelona v Manchester United 2011 UCL Final

The 2010-11 Champions League campaign was blessed with the presence of era-defining names, ideologies, and footballing legacies. From emerging prodigies in Tottenham’s Gareth Bale and Schalke’s Manuel Neuer, to iconic veterans in Milan’s Alessandro Nesta or Inter’s Javier Zanetti, the tournament had featured an embarrassment of riches in terms of signatures that have left lasting imprints upon the memory of spectators across the world.

Indeed, it’s because of this that their collective retreat to the shadow of one club is all the more impressive. Various eras and seasons are home to some of the greatest teams of European football history. Yet, no team has demonstrated a beautiful and stylistic level of dominance in the modern game that surpasses 2010-11 FC Barcelona.

Fresh off a disappointing semi-final exit in the competition at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s resilient Inter in the previous season, Pep Guardiola’s fantasy squad was determined to reclaim what many felt was rightfully theirs. His side steamrolled through the Champions League in mesmerizing fashion. Promoting some of the most fluid passing combinations ever witnessed in football history.

This was a Barcelona team which was already being heralded as the greatest and most dominant club side that anyone had ever seen long before the Champions League final at Wembley. It was headlined by none other than the decorated quartet of Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets. All of which found themselves at the very peak of their collective ability as a group.

From the back, Barcelona relied on the composure and passing ability of both Victor Valdes and Gerard Pique, the gritty determination of Carles Puyol, reliability of Adriano and Maxwell, and the proto type wing back for Guardiola’s system – Dani Alves. The energetic Pedro, and sniper David Villa, polished off what was a terrifyingly cohesive and intelligent squad that wanted to do more than simply win games. It wanted to emphatically impose the club’s tactical doctrines on every opponent it faced.

After humbling Shakhtar Donetsk in the quarter-finals, Guardiola was presented with the only team that likely stood a chance at preventing another European Cup from entering the glittering display in the club museum – none other than Mourinho’s Real Madrid and Catalonia’s most vehemently despised protagonists.

In the build-up to the semi-final encounter, which coincidentally would be the second of four meetings between the two rivals in a span of just over two weeks, Guardiola made blunt statements about his Portuguese counterpart which personified the attitude Barcelona possessed in response to the attempted mind games.

“Tomorrow, at 8:45, we are going to face each other on the pitch. He (Mourinho) has already won the battle off the pitch. He has been winning all season. If he wants his own personal Champions League, I’ll let him have his own off-field Champions League trophy. I hope he takes it home and enjoys it as much as the other trophies.”

Barcelona thoroughly deserved to go through to the final after combating Real Madrid’s physical approach with unforgiving finesse that left Cristiano Ronaldo and company chasing ghosts. Messi’s second goal of the first leg will go down as one of his most iconic. Receiving a relatively harmless lay-off from Busquets near the halfway line before proceeding to dance past Real Madrid’s entire midfield and backline for an audacious solo effort that’s enshrined as one of El Clasico’s legendary moments.

Ultimately, Barcelona would set up a Champions League final rematch from 2009 against Wayne Rooney and Premier League winners, Manchester United. One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last United squads, it was loaded with experience and undeniable pedigree.

Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic formed one of the most trusted center-back pairings of all time just in front of Edwin van der Sar. Fabio, one of United’s feisty Brazilian twin brothers, would get the nod at right back while Patrice Evra was to be tasked with the crippling concept of marking the right side of Barcelona’s attack.

Central midfield featured the composure of Michael Carrick, evergreen Ryan Giggs, and the ideal anti-Messi magnet of Park Ji Sung. It was the South Korean who United had hoped would be able to disrupt Barcelona’s rhythm by cutting gaps and religiously committing to breaking the Spanish juggernauts passing triangles. United’s most dangerous threat in attack, Rooney, was to be used as a left winger who would drop deep to look to exploit Barcelona’s high line by playing a killer ball to Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) or Antonio Valencia.

This wasn’t to be another piece of silverware for the Blaugrana. It wasn’t merely a final that was to be won by a special team with an overabundance of flair. Barcelona have had plenty of those throughout the years. No, this occasion served as the stage on which European club football’s greatest side of the modern era, and likely any era, would cement its eternal legacy as the most aesthetically satisfying demonstration of football imaginable.

A sun-kissed Wembley cathedral served as the theatre for Barcelona’s apex achievement and for one of Manchester United’s most humbling chapters in its fabled history. The opening nine minutes saw United put on a brave face and press Valdes to deny the Spanish side it’s time on the ball. It was initially effective, but with United unable to cause much of an attacking threat in this period, Xavi and Iniesta quickly began to shift the tempo in their favour.

By doing so, United were sucked into the dreaded possession labyrinth that so many of Barcelona’s victims were hopelessly incapable of navigating. Ferguson had seen this happen in Rome just two years prior.

However, 2009 was this Barca side’s inception. 2011 was its climax. An unparalleled wealth of wisdom and experience from the United perspective, both on the pitch and in the mind of its manager, could do absolutely nothing to stop the inevitable. They were being dissected out of possession and suffocated while trying to maintain it. Finally, Pedro made the break through via Xavi’s clever through ball. To say it had been coming is an injustice to Guardiola’s men.

Despite a Rooney equalizer that truly came against the run of play to the fullest extent, it was once again Barcelona that started the second half aggressively hunting for the ball and imposing itself with every touch. Messi, taking up a central position, was given too much space upon receiving the ball and proceeded to take advantage with a stunning low driven shot. There was no escape plan to be conjured up by England’s finest. An ensnared, outclassed, and exhausted United watched Villa place the exclamation point on the tie and on an era of football with a stunning effort to the top corner.

In the aftermath of a north London beatdown, Ferguson ultimately insisted that this specific opponent was “the best team I have ever faced.” Guardiola had successfully designed and executed Catalonia’s plot to construct its most vivid mission statement. Its most explicit example of what is meant by “Mes que un club.“

“We tried to play as well as possible and we would like in the next 10, 15 years that people remember this team – I don’t know one of the best – that they enjoyed.”

Reece Edwards | Get Football

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