PERHAPS the best accolade in modern football is having Sir Alex Ferguson describe your side as the greatest he had ever faced. Of course, this comment from the legendary Scotsman came after the Wembley showdown between Manchester United and Barcelona in 2011, where the Spaniards triumphed in the Champions League final with a clinical display of footballing perfection.
The movement in the centre of the pitch bemused Ferguson’s men, and Barca swept their way towards Edwin van der Sar’s goal with consummate ease. Midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta, supported by the more defensive-minded Busquets, dominated on the Wembley turf in a way that instantly stifled any hopes United had coming into the final. Despite the countless strengths possessed by the English side, they were unable to pose much of a threat to a Barcelona side who appeared to retain possession for entertainment, before feeding through the likes of Lionel Messi and David Villa to create moments of magic forever captured in history.
The victory in the final of Europe’s pinnacle club competition that year was a seamless demonstration of Pep Guardiola’s blueprint for success. Intricate, intelligent and constantly adapting passing movement dragged the home side out of formation, whilst also stealing the breath away from the watching millions. The Spanish tactician is clearly one of world football’s finest managers, and what makes his Barcelona side from 2010/11 so astounding is the fact that every game in that wonderful season was the same – the Champions League final wasn’t a one-off performance, opponents from across the continent were nonchalantly dismissed with some of the sport’s most beautiful passages of play.
Manchester United had also enjoyed a successful campaign, lifting the Premier League trophy and the Community Shield at the start of the season. They came into the final, the last fixture of the year, as minor underdogs but still fully expectant of a battling performance. And until the 16th minute, Ferguson’s men even dominated the early stages with a high-press on Barcelona’s midfield and shots fired at Victor Valdes’ goal. Pedro then ghosted in front of Rio Ferdinand to poke narrowly wide, and the Spaniards finally settled into their rhythm.
Guardiola drills into his players to bear in mind the consequence of every pass made, with positions being seamlessly transitioned into. The true versatility of every outfielder is utilised when needed, with full backs just as capable of bombing down the touchline as they are defending their own penalty area. This intelligent reading of the game handed Barcelona the edge in most of their games throughout the 2010-11 season, and helped pass their English opponents into oblivion on the largest of the European stages. The pitch is Guardiola’s canvas, and he is certain he will create art. Possession will be used solely for the purpose of creating chances and carving teams open, not just for the sake of statistics. And at Wembley, when Pedro drilled past van der Sar at the Dutchman’s near post, the Barcelona manager entered his element – placing his side in absolute control. Wayne Rooney’s equaliser gave United hope, but that was quickly stolen away after the interval through David Villa and, of course, Lionel Messi.
The Blaugrana had threatened to tear apart teams during their La Liga campaign, as shown in the 5-0 demolition of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. The two tacticians in charge on that day may now manage in opposing sides of Manchester, but even back in their days coaching in Spain, Guardiola showed signs that he was becoming superior. His Barcelona outfit tore straight through the middle of Los Blancos, with an attractive mix of passing and swift attacking movement.
Barcelona lifted their 21st league trophy in May 2011, finishing four points ahead of their El Classico rivals on 96 points. Guardiola’s men lost two games all season, with just one defeat coming after the 5-0 victory over Madrid. With the league title only being contested by two teams that year, the early season victory over Mourinho’s side proved to be enough to fire Barcelona to an impressive unbeaten run and eventually La Liga glory.
Barca also lifted the Supercopa de Espana, despite a 3-1 defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of the competition. And off the pitch, at least for a little while, the club were also prospering. Former president Joan Laporta reached his term limit, and departed after a successful tenure at the helm of the Catalan giants. Sandro Rosell replaced him on the 13th June, and began his term as the 39th president as the club.
Investment was made at the start of the season, after the high-profile departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Yaya Toure and Thierry Henry. Javier Mascherano was purchased from Liverpool for 19 million euros, to provide competition in the midfield and at centre-half. But perhaps the most important signature of the summer was David Villa, who arrived from Valencia with a proven goal scoring record in the Spanish top flight.
However, in October, after an unspectacular start to the campaign, the club voted to investigate claims that 48.7 million euros went missing during Joan Laporta’s presidency. This controversy forced the ex-president in front of the media:
“My greatest desire after spending a few years of my life at Barça and the results we got was to become a socio, go back to my seat, go to football games with my kids and enjoy this club.” He said. “They do not let me. And not only do they not let me, but I see some attempts to ridicule, dishonour the reputation we have.”
But despite the uncertainty in the boardrooms, Guardiola’s men recovered from a shock 2-0 home defeat to minnows Hercules and embarked on an unbeaten streak that lasted until April, when Real Sociedad emerged 2-1 winners. Summer signing David Villa cropped up with 18 goals in the league although Cristiano Ronaldo topped the scoring ranks, finding the back of the net an incredible 40 times. But to no surprise Lionel Messi wasn’t too far behind.
There simply aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the Argentinian magician, and his constant ability to create and redefine the boundaries of the beautiful game. His story is a touching one, with coaches doubting he would ever become a professional footballer because of a growth hormone deficiency. But after being coveted by some of his native country’s finest clubs, Messi made the switch to Barcelona, with his very first contract being drafted on the surface of a napkin.
And through his seasons at the Nou Camp, Messi continues to prove why he is perhaps the world’s best player. His 31 goals in the 2010/11 season played a key role in guiding Barcelona to the league title, and his overall link-up play with fellow creators Villa, Iniesta and Pedro was the primary driving force for the Blaugrana’s success that year.
With some of the best players football has ever seen at their breath-taking best, and football’s most avid tactician at the helm, there was no stopping Barcelona from total glory eight years ago. Ultimately it was a pleasure to watch their swashbuckling football, with a feeling of swagger easily tangible through a television screen – they were performing at their peak and they knew it. They revelled in it.
So when Barca and Manchester United lined up on opposite sides of the immaculate Wembley surface, there was simply no stopping the Spaniards. Their style of play, attention to detail and sheer willingness to score beautiful goals make them, in many peoples’ opinion, the greatest football team to ever cross the white line and entertain the masses.