LONDON – Barcelona lived up to the hype tonight at Wembley Stadium, brushing aside Manchester United in masterful fashion, securing their fourth Champions League title and cementing their legacy as the greatest team of this - or perhaps any - era.
Led by a blitzing Lionel Messi, Barcelona again broke United's hearts, downing them in a final for the second time in three years. Both times the Catalans have done it with such majesty that both here and in Rome, (two years ago) it seemed there was only one team on the field.
Hyperbole? Try fact. United were out-run, out-thought and outplayed in a comprehensive fashion, made all the more startling by the fact that this team had showed real fire and grit in winning their record-setting 19th English crown. But goals from Pedro, David Villa and a sublime winner from Messi shut down the Premier League champs and capped an amazing run that has seen Barcelona win three league titles in a row and two European Cups while forming the heart of Spain's 2008 European Champions and its 2010 World Cup winning side.
"Everyone saw we played a great match," Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola told Spanish TV immediately after the game. "We were delighted to win, but this takes a lot out of you."
Perhaps more telling, Guardiola had the tactical edge over a man thought to be a master of the game. Sir Alex Ferguson's United failed to press, looked afraid at times, and allowed Barcelona to get into their rhythm with such deference that the match might well have been over inside of half an hour.
"We were beaten by a better team," said a clearly disappointed Sir Alex Ferguson. "But there is no shame in losing to Barcelona."
"We never controlled Messi," added Ferguson in a sometimes testy post-game conference. "Barcelona are the best team we have ever faced. No one has given us a hiding like that."
To be fair, there may be no team that can handle this Barcelona side, one that is making a serious case to displace the so-called "Dream Team" of 1992 as the club's best ever. Led by a scorching, harrying performance by Messi, Barcelona left United's two fine center backs - Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic - in a muddle, leaving their great goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar at an utter loss.
That said, and to United's credit, Sir Alex Ferguson's men came out to play, and the contest was a riveting one for 70 solid minutes. But the exact same Red Devils lineup that had stunned Schalke in Gelsenkirchen last month found the trick harder to repeat against a team that boasts eight World Cup winners and five of the finest players of their generation. United did not try to foul in the style of Real Madrid, but perhaps they should have. On the night, their midfield tandem of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs was nearly invisible, a weak link that was ruthlessly torn apart by a fluid, almost serene Barcelona machine fueled by Xavi, Andres Iniesta and the irrepressible Messi.
Messi seemed to relish the occasion more than anyone on the field, with the possible exception of Wayne Rooney. But it was so obvious that Rooney's supporting cast comes nowhere close to matching Messi's that to deservedly praise Rooney for his approach is to simultaneously question the resolve of those beside him.
The stats -- usually meaningless in this sport -- told the truth tonight. Barcelona had 19 attempts on goal, 12 on target. United had only four, and just one on frame. Barcelona made an astonishing 772 passes, completing 86 per cent of them. United could only manage 419. It's fortunate that United put their one look on target in the goal - Rooney nicked a lifeline late in the first half out of sheer force of will - but they had no other answers for the swarm that surrounded them.
Messi was the creator, setting up one goal and scoring the match-winner, a 25-yard blinder that deserves to make highlight reels. Collecting a simple tap on from Andres Iniesta, Messi raced towards United's goal like a mad dog, jinked left to create a yard of space, and then blew his shot home. It was genius. Even a chain-link fence wouldn't have stopped it.
Messi would not have been as potent had it not been for the fulcrum formed by Xavi and Andres Iniesta, two men rightly considered the best passers in the sport. Xavi's assist on the first goal - a seemingly insouciant flick right to Pedro that the scorer buried - was actually a brutal diagonal that took Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Giggs completely out of the play. And Iniesta's little taps, so simple in execution, were truly deadly in effect. And Dani Alves, always standing unmarked on that far touchline? He was the outlet, pulling Park Ji-sung and Patrice Evra out of the game, allowing his midfielders space to roam.
But it does begin and end with Messi. United had to expend so much energy in a futile attempt to contain him that they were unable to muster a response when they most needed it. When Messi seized the game, the jig was up for what was supposedly the home team.
There will be some who say that United played to its actual level tonight, that their league title owed much more to will power and grinding efficiency than to any real skill. That would be unfair. Manchester United tonight simply could not match the brilliance in front of them. Even the most loyal supporters of the Old Trafford side must have lost count of the near misses and late, frantic tackles that kept Barcelona to just three goals.
Ferguson was right about one thing, however: It was an historic occasion. Barcelona won their second European Cup at Wembley tonight, third in the Champions League (and of course fourth overall) and also equaled their arch-rivals Real Madrid's total Euro haul of 11 pieces of silver. While that has to be the sweetest thing of all, there also will be a realization that they did it their wa:, with home grown talent, a defining style that others cannot imitate, and a resolve that produces the best of performances on the biggest of stages.
And for England, which hosted the final and hoped to win it, come questions. First and foremost has to be about their league. It is indeed the wealthiest, the most competitive and arguably the most enjoyable. But of late, it has struggled to produce European champions. Only two teams - Liverpool and Manchester United, who have done it twice - have won it over the last twenty seasons, after a long period of competitiveness and dominance. And Liverpool - lest we forget - was being played off the field by AC Milan before their comeback for the ages. In retrospect, that remarkable victory may have papered over the cracks now so apparent when you match the best of the Premiership against the best from Spain.
What does that say? Perhaps that brilliant, precise football, relying on tactical awareness and marvelous individual skill is superior to the cut-and-thrust of the weekly EPL game.
Or, maybe more to the point, Barcelona has three of the world's greatest players in Iniesta, Messi and Xavi. Manchester United tonight had Rooney but no one else who looked like he might have been able to perform for Pep Guardiola's cast.
NOTES: Reports that Dimitar Berbatov left the stadium after being dropped from United's lineup were denied by Ferguson, who claimed the striker had stayed in the dressing room.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.