By Jonathan Wilson
May 28, 2011

WEMBLEY, ENGLAND -- Surely now the doubters have been won over: this Barcelona is one of the greatest teams there has ever been. In Pep Guardiola's three seasons in charge Barca has twice won the Champions League, and it was denied a hat trick that would have placed it statistically alongside the Ajax and Bayern Munich sides of the seventies only by the combined might of Jose Mourinho and an Icelandic volcano.

If its flight before last season's semifinal hadn't been grounded by an ash-cloud, if it hadn't had to travel by bus to Milan, would it have lost 3-1? Without a two-goal lead would Mourinho's Inter have been able to stifle Barca in Spain? They're imponderables of course, but what is true is that, under Guardiola, whenever tectonics haven't been against it, Barca has won the Champions League -- and won it in devastating fashion. "In my time as a manager," said the United manager Sir Alex Ferguson after the final, "it's the best team we have ever faced. No one has ever given us a hiding like that."

United's best chance had seemed to be to score early, and sure enough it began as ferociously as it had against Chelsea. There were moments early on when Barca seemed rattled, but the chance never arrived and as United's early surge ran out of steam slowly the game fell into the pattern of Rome two years ago began to assert itself. Then United had the better of the opening 10 minutes, missed a couple of presentable chances and conceded a soft goal, after which Barca simply kept the ball away from it. This time the goal came later, and was rather harder earned.

It had been coming, though. The theory before the game was that if Wayne Rooney sat on Sergio Busquets, United might be able to upset Barca's rhythm. He did that, significantly diminishing Busquets's contribution -- he completed only 73 passes as opposed to a season's average of 100.73 in the Champions League -- but it didn't matter. Xavi simply dropped deeper and performed Busquets's role as the outlet at the back of the midfield (he completed 124 passes against a season average of 106), the man through whom all attacks were funneled. Iniesta also picked up Busquets's slack with 98 passes completed against a season's average of 84. To put that into context, United's top passer was Rio Ferdinand with 40.

And then, of course, there is Lionel Messi. A team can mark Barca perfectly, can neutralize everybody else, but one man is not enough to stop the Argentine. He almost invariably evades the first challenge, which means teams have to double mark him. Do that, and there will be gaps elsewhere: short blanket syndrome is inevitable.

Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand repeatedly cut out through-balls with last-ditch interceptions, Pedro scuffed wide from an Andres Iniesta cross and David Villa sent a low shot arcing just the wrong side of the post. At the same time Barca's pressing began to tell. There was one sequence when United played a string of nine passes of which six would have been considered risky, and by the end of the move, it hadn't even reached the halfway line. This is what Arsene Wenger referred to as "sterile domination;" perhaps a more accurate term is beautiful attrition. Barca is just relentless; it wears opponents down with passing and pressing until mistakes are inevitable.

The first goal came after 27 minutes, as Andres Iniesta broke and fed Xavi, who waited for Vidic to be drawn a fraction toward the ball and threaded a pass through to Pedro, who swept a calm finish in at Edwin van der Sar's near post. In Rome, having scored, Barca simply kept the ball away from United, but here it was a touch sloppy, perhaps lulled by all the pre-match talk that if it got the first goal there would be no way back for United.

And unlike the 2009 final, United didn't panic having fallen behind. It continued to press high, and when, after 34 minutes, Ferdinand dispossessed Villa well inside the Barca half as he tried to gather an Eric Abidal throw-in, the ball fell for Rooney. He played a one-two with Michael Carrick, then fed Giggs, ran on, took the return and sidefooted a precise finish past Victor Valdes.

Even performing relatively well, even sticking to the game plan, that proved the only chance United would have in the half. Pedro and Messi were each a fraction from getting onto balls played across goal even before halftime and after the break the pummeling went on. Messi's was a moment of individual brilliance, but to affect it he needed the space brought by United's exhaustion. Almost all game until then Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs had occupied that crucial space in front of the back four, denying Messi space as Xabi Alonso had for most of the first leg of Barcelona's semifinal against Real Madrid. Finally they were drawn right, the ball was worked to Messi who darted into the space that had appeared, and lashed in a swerving finish.

This is the problem sides facing Barca have; Messi is so good that he needs only a fraction of a second to do something devastating. Barca has achieved that happy -- perhaps unique - balance of having one of the greatest players there has ever been operating within a ruthlessly coherent team unit. Thereafter it felt very like Rome, as United chased but couldn't win the ball back -- realistically this was an exhibition.

By the time the third came, curled in by David Villa after a Messi run had been checked by Nani and Pedro had worked the ball back to him, it had long felt inevitable. Wayne Rooney had said that when he watched Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-0 earlier this season he had found himself standing in awe. As Barca collected the trophy, Rooney stood on the pitch and applauded. There can be few more eloquent tributes than that: England's best player standing and clapping a side that had outclassed his own.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

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