There are times in domestic English football matches when a team that is comfortably ahead makes a great play of just keeping the ball - and their astonished fans, unused to such serenity, holler ‘Ole!’ with every pass.
It strikes me that Barcelona start a football match in that mode. If they were an English club, the supporters would have suffered a collective bout of laryngitis after twenty minutes.
What my Mrs will be wearing this year
If a football were a drug, and my lass would contend that it is, the chances of most English clubs being done for possession would be virtually nil. Certainly, there’d be very little chance of proving that the ball was not going to be given away cheaply.
To extend this analogy too far, Barca can rightly claim that despite being found with the ball about their person almost all the time, its possession was only ever for personal use.
Only Arsenal can even suggest that they have got anywhere near the style of the Barca pass master class. Unfortunately, the Gooners seem unable to grasp the concept that doing f-all with three-quarters of possession is worse than having no possession at all. It’s a poor imitation. Arsenal are Leona Lewis to Barca’s Beyonce.
Nevertheless, I’ve grown tired of the Catalan love-in recently. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that Lionel Messi was a dinky little Angel of God and Xavi, Iniesta and Villa his blue and red striped cherubim. In short, here was the divine in football form. Football folk everywhere tottered down the aisles and knelt in their pundit’s pews catatonically muttering the same prayer as every other member of the congregation:
Who Art in Heaven,
Lionel be thy name.
Thy kings shall come,
Thy Wembley won,
On turf by the best eleven.
Give us this day our Abidal,
And forgive us our Messi-passes,
as we forgive those that Iniesta against us,
Lead us not into Tottenham, but deliver us from Arsenal,
For thine is the Pique, the Puyol and the Pedro,
for Alves and Valdes, Amen.’
But there were those of us who, having watched the festival of diva-dives and devilry at the Bernabeu, wondered whether they fully deserved their status as Soccer deities.
Well, after Saturday night, we’ll just have to concur with the best manager the game has seen – this is the best club side we’ve ever seen.
It’d be easy to put that down to the magic of Messi. Much was made of how to stop him but frankly he’s as hard to pin down as a Nick Clegg policy statement. He’s more elusive than Sepp Blatter (and Jeez is that greased pig gonna slip through the hands of justice again? I wouldn’t be surprised.)
"Big bag of cash? No! Where could I be hiding a big bag of cash?"
What I like most about Messi is the fact that most of the time he just shifts the ball on. Until he finds a bit of space for himself he’s just another pint-sized protector of the ball. Not Cristiano Ronaldo, in other words. When he does get space to run with it – well, he twists and turns unstoppably like a fast-flowing stream in evening sunshine.
Clearly he was the headline act, but there’s still something about Caspar the Friendly Ghosting Midfielder Andres Iniesta that makes me go a bit wooey. I’ve never seen weight of pass like it. Xavi too. Yes they’re just tapping it this way and that but there’s barely a moment when a player has to check his stride or work hard to recover.
Contrast it with United, who knocked it about as best they could but always resembled a snooker player gradually getting more and more out of position until eventually all the bloke could do was whack it and hope for the best.
Not since me and a few mates joined in a kickabout on Acklam Park with a bunch of casual keepy-upping 14-year-olds has there been such patent one-sidedness in a match. Like our keeper on that day, you half-expected a very wooden Van de Sar to start trying to edge the goalposts together while the ball was up the other end. Trouble was it wasn’t up there long enough.
And here’s where Barca outdo every other team. It’s not the keeping the ball so much as the getting it back. When not throwing themselves like presidential bodyguards in front of the latest Barca onslaught, Rio and Vidic were hurriedly tapping it sideways to each other or as more tiny Catalans swarmed about their knees. It reminded me of this bit in Barbarella. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m__CJdolrhY (Rio Ferdinand is played by Jane Fonda.)
Having said that, I thought that Rooney pecked around tirelessly for opportunity like an anxious free-range chicken and made the most of what came his way and the United goal was a beaut.
Too many players were off the game, not least Park who couldn’t have found a bargain in a pound-shop, and Valencia who couldn’t have found the pound-shop in the first place.
Carrick was part of the bodies-on-the-line brigade. And Giggs was so dizzied by the Barca boys around him that he was ready to call for a stupor-injunction.
Fergie had the good grace to more or less shrug at the defeat. Cos to be honest what can you do? No other team in Europe would’ve fared any better. You almost sympathise with Mourinho’s tactics:
‘You won’t have much of the ball and yet you’ll still have the desire to kick something. In the absence of any alternatives, kick them.’
So yes, there’s no doubt the Pope’ll be beatifying Barca’s behemoths soon. It’s partly club ethos – Abidal lifting the trophy demonstrated that perfectly – and it’s partly happy accident that Xavi, Iniesta, Messi et al have arrived at this same moment in time.
All I know is that to begrudge this team anything is about as mean-spirited a sentiment as you can imagine. I suggest you join me, Barca fans, and millions of Scousers everywhere in hailing a brilliant performance by a wonderful side.