Pep Guardiola’s first season came to an end in a Champions League final against seasoned pro Alex Ferguson. Whoever won this final would win a treble, this final had more pressure than a usual one and Rome was hosting it.
Going into the final, the bookmakers had Man United as marginal favourites, but the British press had the Red Devils as clear favourites. From the opening exchanges, Man United did look like they were going to win back-to-back Champions Leagues.
Ferguson’s men began on the front foot as they fired off five shots in the opening nine minutes as the counter attacking system was tearing Man United apart. Gerard Piqué denied his old club an opening goal as his sliding block prevented Park Ji-Sung scoring from a rebound and Ronaldo fires a shot centimetres wide, centimetres keep the Catalans in the game.
Pep jumps from the bench and barks instructions out to his players. Despite the Olympic Stadium being packed, Guardiola’s instructions make it to his players. Lionel Messi is told to move centrally and occupy the space in between Man United’s centre backs which sees Samuel Eto’o move out to the right wing. Sir Alex Ferguson is delighted with his side’s quick start so doesn’t feel the need to change.
The tenth minutes saw a breakthrough. Its Messi to Iniesta to Xavi to Messi, the quick interplay is too much for Man United. Carrick and Anderson must react to Barcelona moving the ball around, Giggs can’t help as he’s marking Busquets. Iniesta has the ball centrellaly, he dribbles forward a bit and plays a pass. The pass is inch-perfect and timed exactly right for Eto’o, who makes a darting run after losing Evra. Vidić makes a last-ditch tackle but Eto’o taps it past him. The Cameroonian relies on his instinct and elite finishing as he fires it at the near post.
Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ being flanked by Henry and Eto’o wasn’t new. In the league that same month Barcelona lined up with that front three against arch-rivals Real Madrid. The Catalan side ran out 6-2 winners with Henry and Messi each grabbing a brace. Although the score was emphatic and against their biggest rivals, it was even more significant. Going into that match at the Santiago Bernebéu, Los Blancos were on an 18-match unbeaten run and had won 17 of those 18, the last team to beat them was Barcelona and they did it again.
Once again, Barcelona’s numerical advantage in the centre of the park was the difference. With Messi as a ‘false 9’, Barcelona basically had a diamond in midfield with Busquets at the base and Messi as the tip of the diamond with Xavi and Iniesta as the other two. This allowed Guardiola’s men to take control of the game.
Despite being a counter attacking side that did most of their damage in the transition, Man United had no response to Barcelona’s domination. Between the opener and Messi doubling the lead in the 72nd minute, the Red Devils only had three shots with only one coming from open play. Their attack looked blunt which is unusual seen as they had Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez was introduced in the 46th minute.
Barcelona’s makeshift defence looked vulnerable at times throughout the 90 minutes. With first choice full-backs Alves and Abidal both out, Yaya Touré dropped into the back four to partner Piqué at centre back. Yaya was constantly stepping out and was often found as the most advanced out of the back four but as the game progressed, he did try to shadow his fellow defenders and regain his position.
Despite being the more active defender, the Ivorian didn’t make a single tackle and only one interception. However, his 10 pressures show his intelligence. He was constantly breaking the line and meeting the United attackers, if he lunged in and he was bypassed then the Barcelona defence would be in trouble. It was passive defending; Piqué was similar as he made a tackle and interception each with six pressures.
After Barcelona’s second, Man United nearly hit back from kick-off. Giggs miskicked and it fell to Ronaldo whose low effort was well saved by Victor Valdés. From that chance to the end of the game, Man United never looked like getting back into it, Pep Guardiola had won the treble in his first season. This was a sign of things to come.
Two years later, the sides met again in the 2011 Champions League final. Guardiola set his team up in a similar way with the same midfield, Mascherano partnering Pique in defence and Messi being flanked by Pedro and Villa, this time Alves and Abidal were able to play. Once again, the Catalans dominated as they won 3-1 and were even better. They limited Ferguson’s side to only two shots with one on target from 32% possession. Barcelona frustrated Man United as seen by the 16 fouls committed by the English side. Same teams, same result but this time a different score, Wembley got to witness the best team in England blown away by the best team in the world as they won their second treble in three years.
The passing and movement that led to the first goal, the finish from Samuel Eto’o started a movement. A seed for the movement was planted about 40 years prior but it was now about to sweep the footballing world with Pep Guardiola at the helm. This was just the start of the transformation football would undergo in the years to come.