LONDON - Pep Guardiola may deny all
comparisons with the past but the breathtaking display of his
Barcelona prodigies in the Champions League Final has confirmed
the elevation of his team into the soccer stratosphere.
Their 3-1 demolition of English Premier League champions
Manchester United at Wembley, of all places, was a masterful
demonstration of football played at the most sublime level.
Barcelona coach Guardiola, collecting his second Champions
League crown in three years, has produced a team of talents who
can now stand comparison with those wonder sides of the past -
Real Madrid, Ajax Amsterdam and AC Milan.
In United, Barcelona had opponents who are hardly nobodies.
This was their third Champions League final in four years, they
have just won the Premier League by nine points and they boast
in Wayne Rooney one of the best players in the world.
Yet United, in a Wembley stadium with 'home' fans far
outnumbering Catalan followers, could manage just 37 percent
possession, muster only one shot on goal and not earn a single
corner, so much did they fall under the spell of Lionel Messi,
Xavi, Andres Iniesta and their supporting cast.
It was the most comprehensively magical display in a
European final since AC Milan trounced Barcelona 4-0 17 years
ago in Athens.
When Barca play the way they did on Saturday it is hard to
imagine any team surviving their onslaught. The close control in
tight situations, swift inter-passing movement and clever
working of spaces to create chances are simply devastating.
They force opposition fans to look on with jaws dropped in
admiration of football played at a level of skill and
sophistication one would not even dare dream about.
Beaten Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged
their pre-eminence. "In my time as manager I'd say they are the
best team I've faced." he said.
"Nobody's given us a hiding like
that but they deserve it because they play the right way and
they enjoy their football."
Barcelona certainly play with a joy which echoes the truly
great teams of the past.
The Real Madrid side which won the first five editions of
the European Cup between 1956 and 1960, culminating in a 7-3
thrashing of Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final, played with
Ferenc Puskas scored four and Alfredo Di Stefano three that
day in a display of attacking flair which set a benchmark for
European club football.
Ajax, with Johan Cruyff in his pomp and Johan Neeskens in
close support, were the next great team to enchant neutral fans
with three consecutive European titles in the early 1970s.
Their "Total Football", which saw players constantly
switching position and mesmerising opponents, was a spectacular
tactical innovation which changed the game forever.
The AC Milan side which won the European Cup in 1989 and
1990 is probably the only team since to inspire the same kind of
awe. That side, built around the Dutch trio of Marco van Basten,
Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, matched skill and athleticism to
produce classic entertainment.
Barcelona have still to amass the titles of these
illustrious predecessors. Competition is undoubtedly tougher
these days and it is notable that no team has ever won the
Champions League twice in succession since it was introduced in
the 1992-93 season.
But Barca have now won two of the last three European titles
and three in six seasons and it would be rash to think that
Messi, at just 23, will have stopped inspiring his team to
collect ever more trophies.
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