Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United’s tenure spanned three decades and 1,500 games. But it wasn’t until 2011, just two years before retiring, the Scot felt compelled to admit he’d been beaten by the best team he’d ever faced as Red Devils manager.
Champions League finals are usually cagey, close and awkward affairs, such as Manchester United’s triumph over Chelsea in 2008. Three years later, however, despite the advantage of playing in front of an incredibly partisan crowd at essentially a second home in the form of Wembley Stadium, Fergie’s side were played off the park by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
“They’re the best in Europe, no question about that. In my time as a manager, I would say they’re the best team we’ve faced. Everyone acknowledges that and I accept that. It’s not easy when you’ve been well beaten like that to think another way. No one has given us a hiding like that. It’s a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football.”
Many would argue Guardiola’s Blaugrana manifestation was the greatest club side the beautiful game has ever witnessed, but the peak they reached in 2010/11 was something else altogether. 45 ninety-minute victories and 154 goals scored across all competitions, more than a third of which were netted by one player – today’s Birthday boy Lionel Messi, who was also the glistening, irresistible and unstoppable star of Barcelona’s resounding 3-1 victory over the Red Devils in the Champions League final.
In many ways, that scoreline flattered Manchester United. Barcelona were completely dominant from start to finish and whilst their 2010/11 European campaign had already claimed some impressive scalps in Arsenal, ever-tricky Shakhtar Donetsk and arch rivals Real Madrid, United were pretty comfortably the best the rest of Europe had to offer that season, at least in terms of results, losing just seven times across all competitions.
Nonetheless, the boys from the Nou Camp were a different class, finishing up with 68% of the ball, in typical Barcelona style, and eleven more shots on target.
It took just 27 minutes for Barcelona to break the deadlock, a goal created fittingly by chief playmaker Xavi, who unleashed Pedro with a precision pass across the D of the penalty box, leaving the now-Chelsea winger to comfortably slot past Edwin van der Saar and into the bottom right corner.
A goal that instantly highlighted not only Barcelona’s immense technical quality and spacial awareness, but also their ability to shift up gears instantaneously, attacking at sweeping speed.
Ferguson’s United were always fighters, and fight back they did. English football’s pale equivalent of Messi, Wayne Rooney, delicately linked up with Michael Carrick on the edge of the middle third and then Ryan Giggs inside the box before curling the ball past Victor Valdes.
But that gorgeous goal was the closest United came to matching Barcelona’s immense quality, and their last true act of defiance in an otherwise one-way affair.
It was also the trigger that sprung Messi into life. He’d been explosive and inventive in the early stages, but United’s equaliser pushed Barcelona and consequently the Argentine to a higher level. In fact, it was him who put the Spanish giants back into the lead after the interval, weaving his way through United’s banks of four before curling a shot around Patrice Evra, blindsiding van der Sar and beating the Red Devils goalkeeper completely with a last-second bounce that span the ball beyond his rangy grasp.
That was one of five attempts at goal Messi conjured up that afternoon, alongside a staggering 10 successful dribbles and four chances created, the others including a six-yard box backheel, a rasping gallop around Rio Ferdinand followed by a near-post jab, and a powerful curler that had to be headed away by a flailing Evra.
His destructive dribbling, meanwhile, was the largest, most painful and irremovable thorn in United’s side that evening; Messi’s delicate dance around Nani on United’s left followed by Evra and Ferdinand inside the box provided the platform for Barcelona’s result-sealing third, as the ball found its way to David Villa who provided a typically clinical finish from 18 yards.
So, what’s better than being part of the greatest team one of the greatest managers of all time has ever faced? Being the best player on the pitch, of course – stat enthusiasts Whoscored gave Messi’s performance a perfect 10 out of 10. But the most frightening aspect of Messi’s perfect performance in a Champions League final, against an incredibly competent United side essentially playing in their own back yard, is that, celebrating the big 3-0 today, he was just 23 at the time.
Happy Birthday Leo – thank heavens you’re getting old.