WEMBLEY, England (AP) — In one sublime Champions League final, soccer got two emphatic answers.
One: this Barcelona squad, absolutely without question now, is among that small fistful of teams that can legitimately be considered the best club sides ever.
Two: Lionel Messi is as good as Pele and Diego Maradona ever were.
No ifs, or buts, or maybes. Just facts. Proven on the green pitch of Wembley and by the shattered hearts of Manchester United.
Saturday's final score was 3-1. But that was kind. It could have been worse, far worse, for Alex Ferguson's players. They weren't just beaten, they were humbled. Not merely outplayed and outthought, but utterly outclassed, too.
"In my time as manager, it's the best team I've faced," said Ferguson, who is a quarter-century, and counting, at the United helm.
Not that there's any shame in being overshadowed by perfection. United's white-shirted worker-ants, as one expects of any team fielded by Ferguson, a master motivator, did not surrender, did not stop running, did not let their heads droop. They dignified themselves by not losing their tempers, which would have been so easy because Barcelona rarely shares the ball. Barca's winning recipe includes a big dollop of selfishness.
Once it had snuffed out United's spirited start to the match, Barca's triumph quickly started to take on an air of inevitability. Even Wayne Rooney's cleverly worked and sweetly struck goal in the 34th minute could only delay, not change, United's fate.
Ferguson once coined the term "carousel" to describe Barca's dizzying passing game. At Wembley, it seemed to move more quickly as the match wore on. Between them, Barca's super-trio of Messi and midfield partners Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez completed 305 passes — four more than the entire United team.
So if Barca can do this to mighty United twice in three years, then what hope is there next season in Europe?
Not much. Not, that is, if Pep Guardiola sticks around.
The Barca manager has done more than take an already good team and make it nigh-on unbeatable, he is presiding over what looks like the makings of a dynasty. In three years, Guardiola has 10 titles. He spoke wearily before the match of the mental and physical toll that comes with leading a club with such high expectations, which fueled suspicions that he may move on.
But he said after the victory he would remain Barca's coach for one more year. It's not a stretch to think that in another three years, his title-tally could be doubled if he stays.
Messi, remember, turns 24 on June 24. There are plenty more goals, plenty more goal-making passes, left in the speedy little legs of the Argentine who finished as the Champions League's top scorer for the third season running and is now the overwhelming favorite for a third consecutive world player of the year award.
Messi conjured his goal at Wembley out of nothing, really. A pass from Iniesta, a sprint into the box, a shot so fast that it caught everyone off guard. It was now-you-see-it, now-you-don't magic and gave Barca the lead for good. It was his 12th goal in the Champions League, matching Ruud van Nistelrooy's single-season record.
"Lionel is the best player I have seen and probably the best I will ever see," Guardiola said.
Amen to that.
For United, the future looks less certain. Ryan Giggs won't get any younger, nor will Paul Scholes, and Edwin van der Sar didn't get the winner's medal he hoped for in his last match.
Ferguson has rebuilding work to do.
Barcelona has hegemony to enjoy.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester
- Pep Guardiola
- Edwin van der Sar
- Diego Maradona
- Lionel Messi
- Manchester United