Barcelona were at their imperious best as they added a fourth European title to their collection in May, beating English opposition for the third time in the final to cap a season in which their rapid one-touch passing thrilled the watching world. So sublime were they, in fact, that many are now asking whether Pep Guardiola’s side are playing the finest football the club game has ever seen.
Their Wembley showdown with Manchester United was nonetheless expected to be a close contest as the two best teams of recent vintage prepared to go head to head. For all the excitement in the build-up though, the 3-1 scoreline at the whistle told only half the story as Barça romped to glory.
Since Guardiola took the reins at the Camp Nou in 2008, the Catalan giants have amassed a total of ten trophies overall, claiming three Spanish Liga titles, two UEFA Champions League crowns, a Copa del Rey, the FIFA Club World Cup, two Spanish Super Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. Meanwhile, their stylish play has earned comparisons with the great Ajax side of Johan Cruyff and Co that reached the European summit for three consecutive seasons from 1971 to 1973. The Amsterdam outfit hit the heights thanks to a system in which everyone was able to attack and defend, and Cruyff took that philosophy with him when he moved to Barcelona, notably leading them to their maiden European crown in 1992 – also at Wembley – when a certain Guardiola patrolled the midfield.
Today, Barça are a supremely slick machine with a gifted engineer at the controls. Under the 40-year-old, talented trio Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta have helped turn ball retention into an art form, averaging over 70 per cent possession per game, while their 5-0 league rout of Real Madrid is sure to be watched over and over again by aspiring coaches. Rarely can any club side have soared so close to football perfection.
There is an admirable solidarity at the heart of the team as well, summed up best by the moving moment when captain Carles Puyol handed his armband to Eric Abidal as his team-mate went to receive the trophy. Despite only just returning from a serious illness, the French left-back had contributed fully to the victory by contesting the whole 90 minutes in London.
Also of note
Naturally enough, Barcelona’s success has inspired various teams to follow their lead. Attacking football is in vogue again as suggested by the results in the Champions League knockout phase, when only three draws were recorded in 29 encounters. Entertainment was the order of the day and suspense was in similarly ample supply, not least during the tense semi-final meetings between Barça and Madrid that ended in a 3-1 aggregate triumph for the Catalan club.
Meanwhile, outgoing champions Inter Milan did not give up their title without a fight, creating an upset by winning 3-2 away against Bayern Munich after a 1-0 defeat on home soil seemed destined to end their reign. They could not go all the way, however, and nor could the Premier League’s quartet of teams, who once again all made it through the group stage. Despite that pedigree, only United were still involved at the semi-final stage – and England has still produced just three winners in the last 27 years.
German contenders Schalke enjoyed their best ever Champions League campaign, in stark contrast to their struggles in the Bundesliga. The Gelsenkirchen side kicked off with a 1-0 loss to Lyon but promptly embarked on a run of seven wins and two draws, knocking Benfica out in the group stage and Valencia in the last 16 before stunning Inter 5-2 at the San Siro as they sent the holders packing. Schalke’s adventure ultimately came to an end in the semi-finals, Manchester United recording 2-0 and 4-1 victories to deny the outsiders a place at Wembley.
It was a season to remember for Shakhtar Donetsk as well, the Ukrainian club first making headlines by finishing three points ahead of Arsenal in their group. They subsequently raised even more eyebrows by downing Roma 3-2 and 3-0, only to find Barcelona the next obstacle blocking their route and suffering a 6-1 aggregate reverse. The Pitmen could nonetheless be proud of their efforts, as could FC Copenhagen, the first Danish club to reach the round of 16 in the competition’s current format. Having kicked off in the third qualifying round, Copenhagen also became the first Scandinavian side to taste the knockout stage since Rosenborg in 2000.
The big names
He may insist on highlighting the part played by team-mates, but it would be impossible to overlook the outstanding performances of Barcelona linchpin Messi. Top scorer in the competition for the third year running, La Pulga (the Flea) lit up the Champions League with his sheer ability, uncanny vision and a knack for changing matches in the blink of an eye. Not that anyone should forget the essential role played by Iniesta or the precise orchestrations of Xavi, who regularly enjoyed over 100 touches per outing.
Elsewhere, former Madrid icon Raul proved he has lost none of his eye for goal with five strikes in his first European season with Schalke. Leading marksman in Champions League history before the campaign began, he is now the record goalscorer in UEFA club competition with 72 efforts.
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Madrid were at last able to lift their last-16 curse after falling at the first knockout hurdle every year between 2004/05 and 2009/10. They toppled last season’s conquerors Lyon to do it, prevailing 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu following a 1-1 draw in France as their opponents graduated from the group stage for the eighth time in succession.
The round of 16 also featured Barcelona’s only defeat in 13 Champions League matches this term. Arsenal gave Guardiola’s men a fright with a 2-1 triumph in London, but it was not enough to send them past the eventual victors.
13 – Spanish clubs have picked up more European titles than sides from any other country, the Liga’s finest having now won 13 finals and lost nine. Italian teams have finished runners-up more often than anyone else, losing 14 showpieces and winning 12, while England holds the record for consecutive crowns after its representatives came out on top between 1977 and 1982.
"Great teams go through cycles. Barcelona are the best in Europe at the moment and there’s no doubt about that. They’re also the best team I’ve ever seen in my entire career,” Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager
1 - Lionel Messi (Barcelona/ARG): 12 goals (957 minutes of play)
2 - Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich/GER): 8 (607)
3 - Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan/CMR): 8 (900)
4 - Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea/FRA): 7 (584)
5 - Karim Benzema (Real Madrid/FRA): 6 (372), Roberto Soldado (Valencia/ESP): 6 (416), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid/POR): 6 (931)