x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lionel Messi sprinkles his stardust on Wembley's hallowed turf

The Barcelona forward again illustrates why he is being compared to the greatest players of all time

Lionel Messi dribbles the ball past Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand as Barcelona beat their English opponents in the Champions League final, 3-1.
Lionel Messi dribbles the ball past Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand as Barcelona beat their English opponents in the Champions League final, 3-1.

Manchester United have exceeded expectations this season by lifting a record 19th English league title and reaching a third Champions League final in four years, but they were outclassed by a sublime Barcelona side in a Champions League final for the second time in three years.

Lionel Messi got the killer goal in Rome two years ago. At Wembley Stadium, the Argentine genius again illustrated why he is being compared to the greatest players of all time with an imperious performance which the English champions could do little to counter.

There was immense anticipation for the battle between the world's finest sides and Wembley Way, the main approach to the home of England's national stadium, was a teeming United Nations of football fans. The Chicharito fan club from Mexico mixed with Barca cules, most of whom had travelled from Catalonia.

The Catalans had every reason to be confident in their side, while United fans from Malta, Greece, Pakistan - and plenty from Manchester - hoped for an upset.

Many die-hard United fans stood little chance of getting their hands on one of the precious 25,000 allocated tickets. United's average crowd is over 75,000, while Barca's 79,000 now gives the Catalans the highest average in the world. Their allocation did not come close to sating demand either: 96,000 entered a ticket ballot.

As in Rome, the fortunate Barca faithful with tickets headed to the city's main tourist sites, posing for photographs by the House of Parliament or Trafalgar Square in the London drizzle. United fans sought sanctuary in public houses, while the club's Fred the Red mascot signed autographs for adults on the approach to the impressive Wembley arch.

Both teams lined up as expected, with United's biggest surprise the absence of top scorer Dimitar Berbatov - even from the bench. The Bulgarian was last seen leaving Wembley, his United future open to speculation. United's Players' Player of the Year, Nani, will have sympathised from his place on the bench.

For Barca, the surprise was a starting place for Eric Abidal nine weeks after the French international endured surgery for a cancerous tumour on his liver. Wembley is synonymous in the history of both clubs. United became the first English club to win the European Cup there in 1968, while Barca were crowned European champions for the first time in north London in 1992. The Englishness of the venue was hammed up pre match with suited dancers in bowler hats and umbrellas.

Then the sun put in a first appearance and United started brightly as Park Ji-sung stole possession off Dani Alves after two minutes and then off Messi soon after.

As in Rome, the first nine minutes were all United's. Then the Barca giant woke. Messi slipped a pass for Pedro to unnerve the rival defence and Barca's confidence grew.

Pedro left United's defence static after pushing a Xavi cross wide after 15 minutes while David Villa shot wide after 19 minutes as Barca took control.

United, wearing white, were incapable of retaining the ball for more than 20 seconds and the inevitable happened on 27 minutes when a Xavi pass found the ubiquitous Pedro. The Canarian beat Edwin van der Sar with ease to became the first Spaniard to score for Barca in six European Cup finals.

United looked vanquished, their players as flat as the fans, but then a glorious one-two between Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs left Rooney to shoot past Victor Valdes into the top corner. Game on. The goal gave United much needed belief, but the possession statistics told a truer story: 70 per cent to Barca.

United hung on for just eight minutes after the break until Andres Iniesta set Messi up. The Argentine had time to drill the ball past the United goalkeeper from 25 yards.

Barca's third came on 69 minutes from Villa when the Asturian curled a pass from Sergio Busquets into the top corner. It was an effort worthy of the grandest stage and underlined his side's superiority. United were on the ropes. Sir Alex Ferguson's side had not been so outclassed since Rome.

"We'll never die," sang the United fans. Maybe, but Barcelona delivered so many blows that United were left for dead.