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Champions League Wrap-Up

Look, I know it’s soccer and I know a lot of you have stopped reading at this point, but IT’S A GOOD SPORT!  Especially when played at its highest level, and Saturday’s Champions League final was just that.  Barcelona put on a futbol clinic in a 3-1 dominance of Manchester United.  

For those of you who are wondering what the Champions League is, it’s a league comprised of the best European club teams.  Each major league in each European country sends their top teams to this league and they compete in a World Cup style tournament over the course of their regular seasons.  Next to the World Cup, it is the single biggest event in soccer.  Now, with that out of the way, onto the game:

Going into this game the teams looked somewhat evenly matched.  His Fergieness’ Manchester United squad had just been crowned champs of the best league in Europe and had really dominated the league this year.  An infusion of some young talent like the Mexican star Chicharito (one of the best names in sports) paired with the elder stars like the bulldog that is Wayne Rooney, AARP member Ryan Gigs, captain Nemanja Vidic, and the list goes on and on because they’re Manchester United, made the team a real force.

Laurence Griffiths, Getty Images

Conversely, Barcelona, with the impeccably dressed (but not as impeccably dressed as City’s Roberto Mancini – love the scarf)  Pep Guardiola at the helm, had just wrapped up La Liga’s crown.  Barcelona has been widely recognized as one of the best club teams in the world over the past years.  And why not?  Their team is largely the Spanish National team (reigning World Cup Champions) minus Fernando Torres but plus Lionel Messi.  To watch this team play is to watch soccer poetry in motion, as well as a clinic in diving – but that really detracts from my point so I’m going to largely ignore the shocking prevalence of snipers at Camp Nou.  I should note that Saturday’s game was largely well played and didn’t see Barcelona diving for calls that often.  Bottom line, dude’s can ball like no one else in the world.  This edition of the Champions League final was sure to be a show.

What we didn’t know before Saturday, however, is that the game, from England’s Wembly Stadium, would be a show of soccer dominance.  Prognosticators broke the game down as a tight battle for possession that would, eventually, favor Barcelona.  Well the battle of possession was over pretty dang quick.  By the 20th minute Barca had complete control of the game.  Guardiola’s team was controlling possession somewhere north of 60% of the time – a complete demolition.  Their controls were exquisite, their touches sublime, and their ability to find open space for either themselves or their team mates was the stuff of legend…Alright, I admit that my glowing characterization of Barca’s play is a touch verbose – but I was so impressed by this team that so thoroughly dominated play.  It seemed a matter of time before the Spanish side would score.

Laurence Griffiths, Getty Images

And it was.  The Red Devil defense was dissected by Xavi, allowing Pedro Rodriguez to direct home an opening goal in the 27th minute. It was a sign of what would come.  Credit to United (as the Chelsea fan in me cringes) however, who would notch an equalizer just minutes later when Rooney found Giggs, who then found Rooney to drive it home.  The goal came in the 34th and would send the game into halftime all square at ones.

But halftime would be the peak for United.  Barca came out of the break and was back to controlling possession.  Guardiola’s team began to exploit an inexplicably open middle of the field.  Far be it from me to question the knighted Sir Alex Ferguson, but the defensive strategy of the Red Devils had me a bit miffed.  They seemed content to open the middle and protect the edges, allowing – dang near inviting – the best players in the world to walk down the center of the pitch and have a relatively unchecked look from about twenty three yards. It would seem to me that with such a small team (Barcelona) the play would be to close down the middle and force them to the outside.

To those of you who know soccer:  Yes, I know I’d be employing a defense that funneled the ball into the capable feet of Mr. Lionel Messi. But if you can cut off his path, with let’s say two defenders, and try and force him to serve balls into the box, you have the aerial advantage.  Any ball sung in high would be yours (a fact Barcelona knew, which is why they played nearly every corner kick short). It’s a risky maneuver.  Messi has the ability to turn the ball back inside and find an open man, but the alternative is a suicidal one.  Who knew what hell would reign if you opened the middle and allowed these players any free space.

Michael Regan, Getty Images

I’ll tell you what would happen: Messi would find the open space, waltz in and drive home a left footer from just outside the box.  Then David Villa would harness the power of his soul patch, exploit the middle and float home a majestic upper ninety wonder to give Barcelona the comfortable, and eventually the final, 3-1 lead just inside the 70th minute mark.

And that would be the game.  United was smote. There would be no “Fergie Time” magic inside Wembly on this day.  They’d been thoroughly dismantled by the better side.  Which, as much as I’d like it to be, is no disrespect to United.  Despite a defensive strategy that has this writer confused, United didn’t play a poor game.  They were just out-classed.  Barcelona showed on Saturday why some pundits have fingered them as possibly the greatest club team of all time.

There weren’t many loose balls the side didn’t control.  They were consistently able to negotiate or pass their way out of trouble.  Only once or twice did you see a poor first touch from anyone on the Barcelona side.  They controlled possession and really controlled the game.  It was such an impressive display, especially when taking into account that they did it against clearly the second best club team in the world.  This wasn’t some bottom of the table junk team they dominated.  They dominated a United squad that thoroughly dominated the best league in the world.

So don’t hate on United (as much as I’d like to – Rooney, you whiner).  This was a coronation of Barcelona.  It was fitting that the best team in the world this year would show their muscle in club soccer’s biggest stage. I can’t say enough for how impressive I found this win, it was truly a pleasure to watch.  Soccer played at its absolute best.  Congratulations to Barcelona, Champions of Europe, the best club team in the world.

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