ANALYSIS - Midfield machine drives Barcelona to greatness

LONDON Sun May 29, 2011 8:33am IST

Barcelona's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after the Champions League final soccer match against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium in London May 28, 2011. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

Barcelona's Lionel Messi kisses the trophy after the Champions League final soccer match against Manchester United at Wembley Stadium in London May 28, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Eddie Keogh

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LONDON (Reuters) - The midfield machine behind Spain's first World Cup success ticked back into the same relentless rhythm to deliver Barcelona's fourth European Cup triumph at a spellbound Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

Technically, tactically and temperamentally superior, and with the genius of Lionel Messi to provide the coup de grace, Barca crushed Manchester United with the simple logic that without the ball you can't do your opponents a lot of damage.

It must have been a depressingly familiar feeling for Alex Ferguson and the eight members of the starting XI that had also begun the final in Rome two years ago, as Barcelona completed a 3-1 victory that might easily have been a far higher margin.

Then, as now, the English side began by snapping at Catalan heels and threatening to exploit a defence with just a hint of vulnerability about it.

Then, as now, it took barely 10 minutes for the Barcelona midfield to exert their authority and carry the team to a comprehensive two-goal victory.

Unlike in Rome, when United were beaten 2-0, the english side recovered from a first-half goal to equalise as Wayne Rooney wafted in a fine shot after starting the move himself.

If there was any hint that they might go on to triumph despite having only a passing acquaintance with the ball it was disabused by a ruthless second-half Barcelona display.

It fell to the three strikers to score the three goals -- Messi following up Pedro's first-half opener by scoring the second himself and helping create the third for David Villa with an outrageous turn past substitute Nani on the right -- but this was a triumph built on the extraordinary work done in midfield.

PASSING RHYTHM

Xavi continually dropped deep to work his way forward, finding space where none appeared to exist thanks to the deftness of his touch and eye for the right pass -- the inevitable pass as it seems when you watch the replay.

Iniesta, the man who scored the winning goal in last year's World Cup final victory over Netherlands in South Africa, maintained the same passing rhythm while both looked to feed Messi in central areas outside the penalty area.

Xavi completed 124 of 136 passes, while Iniesta found his intended target 98 times out of 107.

Barcelona enjoyed 63 percent of the possession and it would have been much higher had they not felt comfortable enough to relax the rhythm over the closing minutes thanks to that two-goal cushion.

There was no surprise in any of this, nothing Ferguson and everyone else has not seen on countless other occasions watching Spain and Barcelona, but the execution was so good that the United manager acknowledged his side had been left helpless.

"I think it was obvious what happened tonight," Ferguson said. "We knew we were up against a good team before the game and planned as best we could.

"But they do mesmerise you with their passing and we never really controlled Messi. Of course, many people have said that."

If Ferguson was being oppressed by a sense of deja vu, his Barca counterpart was revelling in familiar surrounds.

It was at the old Wembley that Barcelona won their first European Cup in 1992, helped by a skinny midfielder who learned first-hand from then-coach Johan Cruyff that it is through the greedy accumulation of possession that trophies are won.

Pep Guardiola was an outstanding player for Barca, the classic deep-lying, ball-playing midfielder, but as a manager he has touched greater heights.

Based around Xavi, the man groomed to replace him, his Barcelona team played with something close to perfection on Saturday, securing a second Champions League win in three years.

"It's the way we played I'm most proud of," Guardiola said in a fitting summation of his philosophy.

"It isn't easy to play like this but we have managed it and I'm very happy tonight. It was a very good result."

(Editing by Ken Ferris; To comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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