x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Battle was over before it started

Not since Milan beat Barcelona 4-0 in 1994 has a European Cup final been so one-sided.

Barcelona captain Carles Puyol lifts the Champions League trophy on Wednesday night at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Barcelona captain Carles Puyol lifts the Champions League trophy on Wednesday night at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

ROME // Not since Milan beat Barcelona 4-0 in 1994 has a European Cup final been so one-sided. Manchester United had arrived in Rome confident of being the first club since Milan two decades ago to retain the European Cup. They departed vanquished, dominated by Pep Guardiola's brilliant Barcelona.

Supporters of both sides in the packed streets of Rome predicted a far more even encounter. With less than 20,000 tickets allocated to each team, they were traded in the shadows cast by the glaring Roman sun for ?1,000 (Dh5,100). One United fan was stabbed in a leg, but fears of a repeat of the problems which have marred previous United visits to Rome were unfounded, the camaraderie between the visiting supporters as evident as the respect between Sir Alex Ferguson and Joseph Guardiola.

Rather than bad-mouth each other, United fans sang anti-Liverpool and Manchester City songs, while Real Madrid were the subject of Barca's invective. Both teams lined up as expe-cted, with Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Paul Scholes on United's bench. Barcelona's substitutes contained no such quality. One, Marc Muniesa, only made his debut last weekend, but the fit again Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry started.

United supporters held up 15,000 pieces of coloured card to create a giant mosaic of former manager Sir Matt Busby, who would have turned 100 on the eve of the game, but it was the fans at the opposite end who will cherish the memory of May 27 2009. As the teams entered the arena with its dramatic backdrop, the ultimate prize of the European Cup sat glistening on a plinth for all to see. Then football's most anticipated encounter commenced as the sun set over Monte Mario, Olimpico's glorious location the perfect complement for the grandeur of the occasion.

United, all in white, attacked, erasing fears of a negative, counter-attack led game and Ronaldo's shot from distance within seven minutes underlined their positive start. That was as good as it got from the English champions. With Barca's first attack after 10 minutes, Samuel Eto'o beat Edwin van der Sar at his nearside post. Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick wll not find the replay comfortable viewing.

The goal, Eto'o's 35th in his most fruitful campaign so far, lifted the Catalans and deflated United's enterprise. Carrick and Anderson lost possession repeatedly and were wayward in distribution compared to the sublime Iniesta and Xavi in Barca's midfield, the Catalans' star performers. Guardiola spent much of the first period instructing from the edge of his box, Ferguson didn't leave the dug out. Such was the Catalans' dominance, United were fortunate to only be a goal down by the break.

Xavi struck the post from a free-kick after the break, then Lionel Messi, who outshone Cristiano Ronaldo on the night, made it two with an extraordinary header after 70 minutes from a Xavi cross. Out fought and out thought, United looked astonished. Ferguson's charges will rise again. Barcelona, though, are now rightly venerated as the best side in Europe. amitten@thenational.ae