Barcelona's Champions League title caps season, adds to dominant era
BERLIN – About 45 minutes after the final whistle, Luis Enrique broke away from the group of Barcelona players celebrating their 3-1 Champions League final victory over Juventus in front of their fans and made with his young child for the center circle, where Gerard Pique had planted a flag bearing the blaugrana stripes of Barcelona and the yellow and red stripes of Catalunya.
He raised it and waved it above his head to roars of appreciation for the several thousands supporters who still remained in the stadium. This was Barcelona triumphant, Barcelona dominant. It may not yet have succeeded in retaining the Champions League title–which, in the 25 years since Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan was the last side to achieve it, has become the Holy Grail–but three Champions leagues in six years makes this just as much a dynasty as those enjoyed by the great Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool sides of the 1970s.
In a sense, it goes back even further than that. Andres Iniesta, named man of the match–although any of Barca’s three midfielders could have taken the honor–came off the bench in the 2006 final, when Barcelona beat Arsenal, while Xavi was an unused substitute. And just as Frank Rijkaard’s side needed rejuvenating when Pep Guardiola took over in 2008, so the side he left–via Tito Vilanova and Gerardo Martino–needed refreshing by Luis Enrique.
The remarkable thing is how many of this side also played in 2009. When Pedro came off the bench late on and played the ball in the one-two that brought the third goal for Neymar, it meant that seven of the side in Berlin had played in 2009 and 2011. Yet with the addition of Neymar, Luis Suárez, Ivan Rakitic and Jordi Alba, the emphasis of the side had changed. It is not so fundamentalist in approach, not such a pure manifestation of the philosophy Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff had left at the club.
Its approach is more varied, and that, perhaps, makes it harder to stop. Nobody should be in any doubt that Barça, whether in the avant garde version steered by Guardiola, or in this more orthodox incarnation, is an exceptional side, one of the greatest the world has known.
In that regard, Juventus has to take great credit. It gave Barça more of a test than Manchester United managed in either 2009 or 2011, and that's despite conceding a goal of stunning beauty in the fourth minute.
It’s true that it seemed dazed after that, struggling to pick itself up to come again, all those plans and schemes swept away in 16 passes of unstoppable brilliance. It’s true that both Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba could have been sent off. It’s also true that but for two superb reflex saves from Gianluigi Buffon and a couple of near misses it might have been all over long before Alvaro Morata followed with the equalizer after Carlos Tevez’s initial shot had been saved.
But there is need for realism. You don’t beat this Barcelona by dominating it; you beat it by stifling it as far as possible, riding your luck and taking your chances. Lionel Messi was influential in the game, but he didn’t run it. He didn’t do anything outrageously brilliant, which suggests how well Patrice Evra did against him. Pogba at times threatened, and, if his influence was patchy, it perhaps should be remembered he is 22 and returning from serious injury.
Claudio Marchisio did his defensive duties with far less recklessness than either Vidal or Pogba, and his backheel to set up the equalizer was superb.
Realistically, Juve did all that it could: it’s some achievement, particularly given the nature of that opening goal, that this became a game and not merely a procession. When Suárez scored Barcelona’s second, the reaction spoke of relief. And yet in that praise is hidden a concern: Juve is the best side in Italy and yet the gulf to the best side in Spain is clear. The question is the extent to which that is due to financial resources.
With victory, Barcelona completed the treble (as Juve would have) of domestic league, domestic cup and Champions League. It’s the fourth treble in the past seven years (and Barcelona's record second); there were only seven in the previous 53.
But that, perhaps, is a concern for another day. This is a night to salute the great efforts of Juventus to stop a genuinely brilliant team, whatever the reason for its excellence. Barcelona has set a template for the modern game, and it has the trophies that reflect its pre-eminence.