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HISTORY LESSONS

The night Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona became the greatest club side of all time

You would be forgiven for watching the current Man City side and thinking they are the optimum product of Pep Guardiola’s formula.

But Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and co are an echo of a Catalan symphony.

So far in this HISTORY LESSONS series, I’ve looked at games that shaped future events.

This time, I’ve picked out a final that underlined all that had come before it — Barcelona v Man United, 2011 Champions League final.

Just the mention of it is enough to give Park Ji-sung cramp.

On top of the world

Times Newspapers Ltd
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On top of the world

Why this game?

On the morning of May 28th 2011, people spoke about Guardiola’s Barcelona being potentially one of the greatest club sides of the modern era.

By the evening, many heralded them as the standalone greatest of all time.

Victory against Man United in Rome two years before ensured they would never be labelled ‘underachievers’ but when discussing the absolute best of the best, one European Cup does not suffice.

And so the stage was set with familiar opponents in the tunnel — the champions of England organised by a manager of legendary reputation.

Narrative-wise, the setting could not have been better for Guardiola.

It was at Wembley (the old version) in 1992 where he won Europe’s premier club competition as a player under mentor Johan Cruyff.

Part one complete

Getty - Contributor
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Part one complete

2011 gave Guardiola the chance to prove to the world he had not only adopted the Dutchman’s philosophy, but developed and improved it.

There were already question marks about his future, with some speculating the final would be his last game as Barca coach.

As a potential curtain-closer, it had to be a defining performance, a 90-minute summation of his football…

Eric Abidal started just 71 days after having a tumour removed from his liver

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Eric Abidal started just 71 days after having a tumour removed from his liver

Park was always Fergie’s man for the big occasion

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Park was always Fergie’s man for the big occasion

I re-watched all 93 minutes and three seconds of the game to relive a night of profound confirmation.

So what happened?

As the teams line up for Champions League anthem, ITV lead commentator Clive Tyldesley compares Barca’s diminutive players to ‘jockeys’ and ‘under-12s’.

And the frequency of 5ft 7in players is impossible to ignore: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Lionel Messi.

In the 2000s, many clubs began to place increasingly importance on physicality when scouting players.

Some teams got by through sheer athleticism alone.

But Barca resisted this trend and kept their faith in technical ability.

Looking at them, you would fancy your chances of bullying Guardiola’s Barca — but that’s not easy when pre-occupied chasing shadows.

Poetry in motion

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Poetry in motion

United actually get off to the better start.

Their energy and focus allows them to swarm Barca in the first ten minutes.

Wayne Rooney wins headers against both centre-backs, Park dispossesses Messi with an exquisitely-timed tackle, Javier Hernandez leads an imposing high press and forces errors.

In the second minute, Michael Carrick belts a ball at Sergio Busquets’ face which knocks the Spain international dizzy — not intentional, but helpful.

Sir Alex Ferguson had made his side watch a replay of the 2009 final in preparation for the Wembley showdown and for a while it looked as if they had figured out an answer to Barca’s riddle.

In retrospect, it’s obvious United won’t be able to maintain such intensity for the whole game.

Perhaps Fergie thought an early blitz would give them a goal to defend behind a deep block as the game progressed.

Alas, the La Liga champions weather the storm and start to draw their triangles.

With Javier Maschaerano filling in for the injured Carles Puyol at centre-back, United try a few long balls in the Argentine’s direction.

But Chicharito’s exuberance carry him offside multiple times — these brief stoppages act like a reset for a training exercise as Barca continue to paint patterns.

Mutual respect

AFP
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Mutual respect

The breakthrough comes in the 27th minute as Xavi feeds Pedro with Patrice Evra seemingly out of position.

I feel for the Frenchman though, the movement of Messi, Pedro and David Villa creates confusion, especially considering none of them occupy traditional No9 areas.

In the Barca-orientated documentary ‘Take the Ball, Pass the Ball‘, Carrick speaks about Pedro and Villa’s incredible persistence in this game.

The wide forwards make run after run after run and aren’t perturbed when the throughball doesn’t come, which is most of the time.

It’s this perseverance that makes life difficult for full-backs Fabio and Evra.

Counter punch

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Counter punch

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a shock retort.

Rooney plays a pair of one-twos before curling a sweeping right-foot finish past Victor Valdes from just inside the box.

Colour commentator Andy Townsend describes it as a ‘Barcelona goal’ such is the neatness of the passing in close quarters.

But the goal barely disrupts the Catalan giants.

They resume control from kick-off — starting up what Fergie calls ‘the carousel’.

In terms of the quality of football, this is the best game I’ve re-watched for HISTORY LESSONS.

Barca’s hypnotic passing is only interrupted by explosive Messi dribbles.

The legendary No10 often shares the same space as Xavi and Iniesta: a trifecta of inspiration occupying the ten square metres, sharpening their telepathy through intimacy.

Reign supreme

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Reign supreme

When United beat Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi-final, they did so by keeping a clean sheet in both legs.

Carrick later revealed assistant manager Carlos Queiroz was the mastermind behind the defensive masterclasses.

In the week leading up to the first leg, Fergie’s right-hand man appeared at the training ground carrying two gym mats.

He slapped them down in the space between the centre-midfielders and the centre-backs and told Carrick and co to focus on stopping the ball from touching the mats.

United translated this to the game and found they were able to limit Barca’s possession in-between the lines, nullifying the threat.

By 2011, United were unable to prevent the ball rolling into gym mat territory.

They’re searching for a back-up plan before half-time.

A disgruntled Rooney jogs over to the dugout and Ferguson can be seen telling him: “Do what I tell you.”

The gym mat zone

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The gym mat zone

Eight minutes after the restart, Messi gets his goal.

He takes aim from the exact spot Quieroz would have placed his gym mat and the low snap-shot catches Edwin van der Sar unaware.

Replays show the ball was a couple of yards inside the bottom corner and the experienced Dutch keeper over-committed to his right.

It’s one of the most emotional Messi celebrations ever — he boots a pitchside microphone and threatens a Temur Ketsbaia assault of the advertising hoardings.

Keeper error?

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Keeper error?

2-1 with just over 20 minutes to go, Ferguson faces a Catch-22.

To chase the game he needs to introduce another attacking threat but doing that may reduce defensive stability against a Barca ready to strike again.

He bites the bullet and substitutes Fabio for Nani.

15 seconds after coming on, the Portuguese winger is left for dead by Messi in a move that induces religious gasps from the stands.

A few seconds later, Nani is caught in possession in the box by Busquets and suddenly a swish of Villa’s right-foot propels the ball into the top corner.

3-1 — game over.

Party time

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Party time

Earlier this year, Busquets revealed to the Guardian that Rooney begged for mercy at the end of the game.

“That’s enough,” United’s goalscorer supposedly told Xavi. “You’ve won. You can stop playing the ball around now.”

But of course, they didn’t.

Watching it back, the final ten minutes was not half as bad for United as the middle hour.

Xavi and Iniesta attempted 263 passes between them and they kept the carousel turning smoothly.

Something I didn’t remember was Pique’s performance — he was a incredibly good without a hint of drama.

Spoils of war

Times Newspapers Ltd
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Spoils of war

Guardiola wanted a legacy-defining victory and that’s exactly what he got.

Of course, Spain’s international dominance between 2008 – 2012 is intertwined with Barcelona’s most impressive side of the same era.

But the former owes more to the latter.


READ MORE FROM OUR HISTORY LESSONS SERIES: