Monday, May 30, 2011

Manchester United: Why there is little to frown about

The Red Devils kept faith and pledged to battle to the very end, but everyone knew that a Barcelona triumph over Manchester United was but a foregone conclusion. And so it was, as Barcelona presented a footballing masterpiece that left everyone all the more lost for words to describe their footballing brilliance and absolute dominance over European football. Xavi and Iniesta demonstrated their ruthless mastery at the art of playmaking and keeping possession, while Messi was, as usual, at his lethal best on the ball.

In Rome, United simply imploded. Lacking a conventional midfield destroyer to stem Barcelona's probing build-up by closing down their midfielders meant that the Catalans had the midfield all to themselves. Instead of assembling a team specifically to beat Barcelona, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to best them at their own game. A decision that went horribly wrong with a resounding defeat. Afford them too much space and time on the ball and we all know what happens.

This time around, the Scotsman got it right. Park Ji Sung's dogged dedication to his midfield role was simply jaw-dropping. Granted, hunting about for a ball that is passed around like a pinball was always going to be a task of sisyphean proportions. But up till the dying moments of the game, Park ran like a man possessed. He was aided in his cause by the commendable Michael Carrick, who this time did his utmost to impose his influence on the midfield battle and halt the tirade of Barcelona attacks.

Then there was Ryan Giggs, at the grand old age of 37. It still is incredible how he manages it, providing the spark for a counter-attack at every opportunity and dribbling with the youthful vigour of someone half his age. He let United believe for those few minutes that an upset well and truly possible when he played Rooney in for the equaliser. Expect him to be sorely missed when he finally calls time on his illustrious career.

Prior to the match, Dani Alves claimed that United were stronger without Cristiano Ronaldo. Some accused him, as well as other members of the Barca squad, of employing mind games. The former held true; United's ripostes had more cohesion and teamwork this time around. Two years ago, Ronaldo seemed hell-bent on demolishing Barcelona all by himself, embarking on reckless individual runs and blasting the ball at goal from impossible distances. With his departure, they played as a more united strikeforce and threats didn't come from a single source.

While Hernandez had a performance to forget, Wayne Rooney finally stepped up to the plate at Wembley. He made the most of the little possession United had, drifting into dangerous positions and distributing the ball beautifully. He showed pace, stamina and sharpness in attack. His equaliser was expertly taken, curling away from Valdes' despairing dive. United can only hope he builds on this performance to reach even greater heights next season.

United's stubborn defence held strong and rallied, but it simply wasn't enough.
Perhaps Vidic and Ferdinand's only crime in the Final was to give Messi so much space and time to work the ball in for his goal. They can be proud of a defensive resilience of the highest order, frustrating Barcelona for all it was worth. Vidic stood fast in the face of Messi's vaunted close control, while Ferdinand was a commanding presence in the final third. 

A post-mortem on the Final would not reveal much to reflect upon. Antonio Valencia was decidedly ineffectual, contributing little more than a series of fouls on Messi. Hernandez went missing for most parts of the game. Evra was left exposed on so many occasions, belying the quality of his season.
United came out and did their utmost to stymie Barcelona's charge for the title. They were valiant and fought to the death, but were outmatched and routed by the better, if not the best team in the world.

I would decline to write a specific article in salutation of the European and Spanish Champions, for there is no more to say than what's already been. Barcelona have carved their legacy in stone and written their history. As a United fan, I would just like to say well played, well won and well deserved. We rarely lose, but when we do, there's no other team we would want than Barcelona.