By STEPHEN BRUNT
Monday, May 30, 2011
LONDON -- email@example.com
There is, or at least there used to be, a kid's toy called spirograph that, with a pen and a series of interlocking circles, allowed for the creation of wildly intricate patterns of intersecting straight lines.
That's the way Barcelona plays soccer, its short, precise passes delivered with perfect logic, sometimes forward, sometimes backward or sideways, and players moving constantly, always linking up. Looking on in wonder, it feels less like mathematics than art, especially when the ball winds up at the feet of the diminutive genius at the centre of the mandala, Lionel Messi.
After Barcelona's decisive 3-1 victory over Manchester United on Saturday night in the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium, it was left to the men in charge to come up with the appropriate superlatives.
"In my time as manager, I would say they are the best team we have faced," said Sir Alex Ferguson, who started out at lowly East Stirlingshire in 1974, and since arriving at Old Trafford in 1986 has seen the crème de la crème of the world game close up. "Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. ... No one has given us a hiding like that."
"Lionel is the best player I have seen and probably the best I will ever see," said Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, who at 40 isn't old enough to remember Pele, or Best, or Puskas, but certainly saw the player to whom Messi is most often compared, Diego Maradona.
It's not as if United didn't show up. Fresh from winning a record 19th league championship, it is a great team, perhaps neck and neck with Real Madrid as the second best in the world, even if it's not the most talented side of Ferguson's tenure (that bar is set awfully high). Trying to avoid what happened to them two years ago in the same cup match against the same foe, they came out intent on attacking, with Wayne Rooney and Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez playing together up front. Briefly - very briefly - United seemed to have Barcelona back on its heels. But by the time Pedro Fernandez opened the scoring in the 27th minute, beating Edwin van der Sar after taking a glorious feed from Xavi, the Catalan side's tick-tock passing had become the tempo of the match.
Barça committed one grievous error in the first half, making a hash of a simple throw-in deep in its own half after United applied pressure, and Rooney made it pay, working give-and-goes with Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs before beating Victor Valdes.
At that moment, it felt like game on, and sitting among the loud, emotional crowd in the stadium at the end of the first half, it felt as if those 45 minutes had been competitive. But watching the replay in the wee hours of Sunday morning, it didn't look close at all, and the second half, live or on television, was both a rout and a clinic.
(Numbers rarely do justice describing a soccer match, but take a gander at these: Barcelona directed 16 shots on or at the net, United three; Barcelona won six corners, United zero; Barcelona controlled the ball 68 per cent of the time.)
Messi was at the heart of it. He scored the winning goal in the 54th minute, facing three defenders, none of whom dared come at him. He pulled up and shot, catching van der Sar leaning the wrong way. And Messi created the chaos that led to David Villa scoring the third Barcelona goal 15 minutes later, leaving Nani (who had just come on as a substitute) standing alone and bewildered as he ran by him, free, into the box.
"I feel privileged," Guardiola said. "You always want to win, but the way we won is what I am most proud of. This is the way we want to play football."
And this, right now, is the gold standard. They are obviously the best club in the world, and the core of this Barcelona squad is also the core of the Spanish national team that is the reigning World Cup and European champion.
There is talk of Guardiola moving on to new challenges - perhaps even succeeding Ferguson at Old Trafford if Sir Alex opts to retire - but right now there's no end in sight to Barça's dominance. (Consider that this summer, Barcelona will likely renew pursuit of another one of Spain's World Cup winners, Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, as though it needs him.) A few of Barcelona's players are a little long in the tooth, but Messi, who next month turns 24, is modest, self-effacing, sane and apparently free of Maradona's myriad bad habits. Barring injury, his best years - just try to imagine what that might look like - are still in front of him.
"We were the better team," he said on Saturday. "We deserved to win."
The better team, for sure, on a night when no contemporary team could have touched them.
That's why there's so much talk of history.