Sunday, May 29, 2011



by Wayne Robins

Two shots of Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager and embodiment of a quarter century of Manchester United dominance, told the story of the UEFA Champions League final Saturday at London's Wembley Stadium.

With about five minutes left in regulation, Sir Alex was wound tight as a tourniquet. With his team down 3-1 against Barcelona, the camera closed in on the manager's hands clenching, his jaws chomping chewing gum, his feet anxiously tapping. The agony of the competitor, unable to alter the outcome, each final moment an endurable burden. Manchester United, under Sir Alex, has won an enviable bounty of trophies, including just last week, that of the English Premier League that they have taken to worldwide prominence.

But they weren't winning this one.

And so when it was over minutes later, Barcelona not just victorious but undeniable in their dominance, Sir Alex gave the customary handshake to the triumphant opposition manager, Pep Guardiola. It was not the grimacing handshake of bitter defeat. Sir Alex showed a broad sincere grin, quite nearly the involuntarily laughter of one who had been through a rather spectacular experience. This loss had no pain, no Sting, no Sting singing "King of Pain." Sir Alex knew his team was good, played with effort, intelligence, and heart.

The two best teams in club soccer over the last few years, Barcelona and Manchester United, their high profile coaches, multimillionaire superstars and multiethnic, multinational casts of outstanding players, had met on British territory, London's Wembley Stadium, and each brought their best game. And when it was over, Sir Alex and the proud, the strong, Manchester United, had experienced the privilege of losing a very good soccer game to one of the greatest soccer teams of the last 100 years.

For once, the duel of these modern titans lived up to its billing. The stars of both teams were both spectacular: Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney each scored goals. So did each of Messi's partners on Barcelona's ridiculously formidable front line: Pedro (Rodriguez), who opened the scoring in minute 27 on the right flank, on a sweet pass from Xavi. Just seven minutes later, Rooney kicked through the equalizer.

Rooney, who had begun the season as a potentially fatal distraction to Man U—hurt, ineffective, and so disengaged and isolated that he was widely expected to leave the team—played his heart out. Even as the minutes ticked away from his team, Rooney ran down the ball at both ends of the field, competing fiercely, trying to turn the tide by any legal means necessary. (But one wonders: What were Rooney and Sir Alex arguing about on the sideline in the 43rd minute?)

Manchester United began the game with an aggressive full field press, hoping to keep Barcelona off balance and perhaps strike an early goal that would create a little doubt in the Spanish team. As a sign that Barcelona might have been overconfident, there were two or three times in the first 10 minutes when the Spanish goalkeeper Victor Valdes came exceedingly far out of the box to intercept the ball. A lapse in timing, touch or balance might have led to easy, early Manchester goals.

But Barcelona, known for its lightning strike counterattacks when pressed, held ground, and after withstanding the Manchester push without really allowing even a close shot, went on the attack. From then on, the statistical domination told the tale: Barcelona held the ball for about two-thirds of the playing time, much of it in Manchester territory.

Nevertheless, at the half, it was tied 1-1, and Messi, by acclamation the game's most gifted, exciting and dangerous player, had been held in check. Man U's strategy was to use a box defense: keep four men in position around Messi in the hope of keeping him out of Barcelona's pinpoint passing game. But in the 54th minute, the agile and speedy Messi got the ball, and the defenders blinked: Instead of closing in, they went back on their heels, thinking Messi too distant to strike. Messi, instead of doing one of his sensational dribbles through the defense, took a step sideways, and kicked the ball high with his left foot into the right corner of the Manchester net. "Corner" actually, is an exaggeration: The ball was about 15 yards inside the right post, but Manchester goalie Edwin van der Sar had already committed to covering the left side and had no chance.

Both teams played hard. Manchester defender Antonio Valencia seemed in constant danger of a yellow card as the team's physical enforcer, occasionally with a forearm or elbow. Barca's Dani Alves drew a yellow at 59, followed by one for Man U's Michael Carrick at 61. But they were for rule infractions rather than dirty play. The tough but fair Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai allowed this one to be settled on the field. And when David Villa put Barcelona ahead 3-1 in the 69th minute, it was settled. And a very good Manchester United team needed no excuses, no apologies, no hard feelings. "I think they're the best team we've played," Sir Alex said after the game. "(We were) well-beaten."

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