Europe salutes Barcelona
© AFP

Displaying the kind of flowing football and technical mastery that has been their hallmark this campaign, on 27 May Barcelona were crowned UEFA Champions League winners after a deserved 2-0 victory over holders Manchester United.

The triumph was the third trophy win in an astonishing first season as a top-flight coach for the Blaugrana's 38-year-old coach Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, following on from La Liga and Copa del Rey success, and came 17 years after the former deep-lying midfielder had lifted the "cup with the big ears" as a player under mentor Johan Cruyff. And to his credit, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was dignified in defeat, saying "bravo to them for having stuck to their philosophy right to the end."

The Manchester giants, who had been dreaming of adding the Champions League to the Premier League, League Cup and FIFA Club World Cup crowns they have won this season, started brightly but never recovered from Barça's tenth-minute opener, scored on the break by Samuel Eto'o. And having been chasing shadows for much of the night, the Red Devils' challenge was effectively killed off on 70 minutes when the unmarked Lionel Messi sent a looping header beyond Edwin van der Sar from Xavi's perfect cross.

All of which seemed unlikely going into the competition's last four, which for the third season in a row included three sides from England's top division. Yet, for the second time in three years, the odds were overturned by the sole continental representative, with Barcelona following the example of AC Milan in 2006/07.

Paradoxically, it was the vastly less experienced of the two supremos who won the tactical battle. Guardiola shuffled his pack from the outset, lining up with Messi through the centre to avoid a direct contest with the pacey Patrice Evra and reinforced his midfield in a bid for greater possession. For ten shaky minutes, however, Ferguson's side clearly unsettled the Catalan club by pressing the play high up the field, only to lose their way after Barça's opener.

The veteran Scottish strategist was subsequently forced into a series of tactical reshuffles, including the introduction of more attacking options from the bench, but in vain. The impeccable passing, movement and control of the Azulgranas ensured there was no way back for the Red Devils, whose last hope was extinguished by Messi's acrobatic header.

United ease through, Barcelona struggle
In their semi-final contest, in contrast, Barcelona were made to wait until the dying seconds of the tie before clinching a place in the decider at the expense of a rugged and organised Chelsea side. Under the guidance of tactical genius Guus Hiddink, the Blues had largely nullified Barça's free-flowing game by using a high defensive line and pressing tactics to isolate the front three and cut off the midfield supply.

Having first been the only team in this season's Champions League not to concede at the Camp Nou (0-0), Chelsea quickly took charge of the tie in the second leg via a superbly struck goal from Michael Essien. With the west London side within touching distance of reaching the final for a second consecutive season, ten-man Barcelona stunned Stamford Bridge when Andres Iniesta's injury-time effort found the top corner of Petr Cech's net.

After coming away from their semi-final first leg at Old Trafford trailing just 1-0, despite being comprehensively outplayed, Arsenal must have felt they had every chance of turning the tables at the Emirates. But the young Gunners' 24-match unbeaten Champions League home record was left in tatters by a devastating two-goal salvo in the opening 11 minutes from United, with the holders eventually winning 3-1 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate. This disparity was further underlined by the 18-point gap between the pair in the final Premier League standings.

Goals galore
The quarter-final stage witnessed a veritable deluge of goals, 28 in eight encounters at an average of 3.5 a match, of which an incredible Chelsea-Liverpool second-leg clash was the undoubted highlight. Beaten 3-1 at home in the first leg and without the injured Steven Gerrard, Liverpool put up a heroic fight in a breathless and thrilling 4-4 draw that would have been worthy of any final. Meanwhile, Barcelona dispatched Bayern Munich 5-1 on aggregate and Manchester United squeezed past FC Porto 3-2 on aggregate after being held 2-2 in the first leg at Old Trafford. Arsenal, for their part, defeated Villarreal 3-0 at home after a 1-1 away draw.

Another notable feature of the competition was the exit of all three Italian representatives at the hands of English clubs in the last sixteen. Though evenly-matched encounters, on each occasion it was the Premier League clubs that progressed: Arsenal beat Roma 7-6 on penalties after trading 1-0 wins, Chelsea edged out Juventus 3-2 on aggregate and Manchester United defeated Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan 2-0 after a 0-0 first-leg draw in the San Siro. Spanish giants Real Madrid, for their part, were overwhelmed 5-0 on aggregate by Liverpool, while Barcelona's 5-2 second-leg success sealed a 6-3 aggregate win over Lyon. Spare a thought too for Sporting Lisbon, who were humiliated 5-0 at home and 7-1 away by Bayern.

And finally to the group phase where surprises were relatively scarce. That said, Shakhtar Donetsk, who went on to win the UEFA Cup, could only finish third in Group C behind Barcelona and Sporting.

Top scorers
1. Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona): 9 goals
2. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool) and Miroslav Klose (Bayern Munich): 7
4. Lisandro Lopez (FC Porto): 6
5. Emmanuel Adebayor (Arsenal), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus), Thierry Henry (Barcelona), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Karim Benzema (Lyon): 5

Assists
1. Xavi Hernandez (Barcelona): 7 assists
2. Franck Ribery (Bayern): 6
3. Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal), Lionel Messi (Barcelona) and Frank Lampard (Chelsea): 5

Shots on target
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United): 34
2. Lisandro Lopez (Porto): 23
3. Franck Lampard (Chelsea): 18

Triple triumph
Barcelona's treble of Champions League, domestic league and domestic cup makes them the fifth European team to achieve the feat after Celtic (1967), Ajax (1972), PSV Eindhoven (1988) and Manchester United (1999).

Leading the way in Europe
Barça's victory has meant that Spain are now the most successful country in European Cup/UEFA Champions League history with 12 victories.

1. Spain, 12 wins from 20 finals: Real Madrid (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002), Barcelona (1992, 2006, 2009)
2. England, 11 wins from 16 finals: Liverpool (1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005), Manchester United (1968, 1999, 2008), Nottingham Forest (1979, 1980), Aston Villa (1982)
3. Italy, 11 wins from 25 finals: AC Milan (1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2007), Inter Milan (1964, 1965), Juventus (1985, 1996)
4. Germany, six wins from 13 finals: Bayern Munich (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001), Hamburg (1983), Borussia Dortmund (1997)
5. The Netherlands, six wins from eight finals: Ajax (1971, 1972, 1973, 1995), Feyenoord (1970), PSV Eindhoven (1988)