And so, as more or less everyone expected, Barcelona are European Champions again, beating United 3-1 in last night’s Final at Wembley – a stadium which is fast becoming a bit of a hoodoo ground for us. I will admit that I approached the game in hope but with no great optimism. It would have taken an outrageous lucky streak for us to have beaten the Spanish champions last night and that never looked likely once Pedro put them ahead. Whilst we at least managed a goal from Rooney to see us through to parity at the interval, you always sensed that Barca had a couple more gears to shift through whereas we looked fully extended at all times; it was as much as we could do to stay in the game and the players must take some credit for hanging in there for as long as they did.
Second half goals from the supernatural Messi and David Villa saw Barcelona home with some comfort and we can only really say that we did our best. It was a bit like Rome 2009 all over again and Fergie’s dreams this summer will probably be haunted by a kind of Groundhog Day where we have to play Barca over and over and over again.
Of the United team, only Rooney and Vidic can really look back with any satisfaction on their performances – pretty much everyone else found it difficult to gain any kind of foothold in the game. For all that, I was happy with the team that Fergie picked; in theory, we should have had more of a chance with Rooney free to drop off into midfield. The reality was quite different with pretty much everyone made to look second-rate.
The players will be hurting tonight, of course, and the challenge for them and the management is to improve to the level where they can compete more effectively with Barca. For all the talk, tonight wasn’t really about revenge, but having had our noses rubbed in it twice in three years by them, next time we meet , it surely will be. United aren’t used to being made to look like a pub team and as a club, from the manager down to the fans in the stands, they will not take it well.
There’s the inspiration to goad us into improving yet further. This United team, for all their much-vaunted team spirit, simply lacked enough individual ingenuity and skill to ever threaten to disrupt Messi & Co. Ryan Giggs looked all at sea, Fabio a bit bewildered, though he was surely a better bet than the lumpen O’Shea, Hernandez was anonymous to the point of invisibility, Van der Sar was too easily beaten for the first two goals and though Carrick, Valencia and Park worked hard to stem the tide, it was always likely to prove futile in the end.
We all know that the squad needs strengthening and Ferguson knows it too. Berbatov’s fate may have been settled by his failure to even make the bench last night, Scholes is surely destined for either retirement or a year at Oldham, Van der Sar has gone – thanks Edwin for being nearly as good as Peter Schmeichel – and the likes of Owen, O’Shea and Gibson need to be moved on. Nani, too, may be on his way to Italy, if the rumours are true.
New blood is needed with youngsters promoted from within and a few marquee signings this summer to freshen up the team – particularly in midfield. There’s no need to be particularly despondent about last night – no other team would have fared any better than we did.
It’s pointless eulogising about Barcelona – enough people will be doing that. We have to lick our wounds and move on. They may think they’ve seen the last of United, in which case, they may be in for a nasty shock somewhere down the line. As Steve McLaren once said, United never lose games, they just run out of time.