Rome, 2009: Barca upsets Man United
It's easy to forget that two years ago, when Manchester United and Barcelona met at Rome's Stadio Olimpico, the Red Devils were resounding favorites. Hindsight gives some liberty to remember this as merely an English-language phenomenon (or Anglo-centricity), but there were a number of perfectly logical reasons to believe Manchester United would become the first side since Arrigo Sacchi's 1990 Milan team to retain the European Cup.
Manchester United were the defending champions, held a 25-match unbeaten streak in Champions League, and had throttled Arsenal in the semifinals, 4-1. Sir Alex's charge had defeated Barcelona the year before, shutting out the Blaugrana over 180 minutes, a loss which (combined with Barcelona's third place finish in Spain) led to the departures of fading icons Ronaldinho and Deco, as well as coach Frank Rijkaard.
Although those changes led to a dominant campaign in Spain, Barcelona had yet to show such dramatic improvement in Europe. Their semifinal against Chelsea nearly mimicked their struggles against United, the Blues riding a second leg, Michael Essien rocket to the precipice of second consecutive finals berth. Then a lightning bolt from Andres Iniesta saw the 10-man visitors advance on away goals, Barcelona finally breaking through after more than 360 scoreless minutes against two of England's titans.
Unfortunately, the Chelsea tie crippled Barcelona for the final. Three of their four starting defenders would miss the match – two through suspension (Dani Alves, Eric Abidal), one crocked (Rafa Marquez). A patchwork backline would have to contain a side that would dress Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov, and Nani.
All of which is to say roles were reversed. As much as Barcelona is considered a favorite at Wembley, Manchester United was more so in Rome.
In the opening minutes, the Red Devils showed why they were favored. In a match-up of teams known for exerting pressure, it was Manchester United's intensity that overwhelmed an uncharacteristically passive Barca. Park Ji-Sung nearly scored in the first minute. Three minutes later, Ryan Giggs nearly set-up another opportunity, United's early dominance capped off by two Ronaldo chances before the ninth minute.
But in that ninth minute, the foregone conclusion became a lie: a fabrication highlighted by one of the most important and overlooked aspects of the modern game, illustrated with chalkboard simplicity. As the evolution of teams' formations have seen more players sit deeper on the pitch (with players' increased athleticism giving managers the option to rely on quick and dramatic counter attacks), scoring the opening goal has become more important than ever. Compound that with a Barcelona style that rarely sees possession ceded to their opponent, and giving up the first goal may as well be terminal.
Samuel Eto'o's goal provided the diagnosis. With Barcelona's first foray toward Edwin van der Sar's goal, Andres Iniesta and Eto'o outnumbered Nemanja Vidic. Iniesta laid off for the Cameroonian, who cut back toward goal (losing Vidic) and finished before Michael Carrick could catch up to the play. After nine minutes, Barca was on top.
In hindsight, it's easy to see that's where the match was decided. At the time, an onlooker's reaction was more likely to be 'It's on' than 'It's over.' But as the match bled to halftime and Manchester United failed to get the ball off Blaugrana boots, it was obvious the great Sir Alex Ferguson had committed the same mistake as all those who'd made Barca the underdog: He underestimated the opposition.
True, Ferguson started his energy guys, Park and Anderson, in what is normally a tip-of-the-cap to his opponents' capabilities. He employed Rooney in the more defensive-minded, left midfield role the forward had started to master in the run up to the final. But despite the respect connoted by Ferguson's deployment, the reverential tactics Manchester United employed the previous year (when a Paul Scholes goal was all United got and needed over 180 minutes) were gone. This United team was more ambitious, trying to match Barcelona blow-for-blow - a mistake. Manchester United was clearly the inferior side.
Carlos Tevez came on at half. After 20 minutes, Berbatov was on for Park, deploying an attack United's followers had clamored to see more often: Tevez and Berbatov up top, Rooney and Ronaldo wide - the best quartet of goal scorers at any club's disposal. Not that it would matter.
Though Barcelona would end the match with an uncharacteristically low 51 per cent of possession (thanks to cautious second half), they put eight shots on goal to United's two. Most importantly, they used the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquests and (man of the match) Xavi Hernandez to protect a back line that started a 35-year-old reserve at left back (Sylvinho) and a defensive midfielder (Yaya Toure) in central defense.
It was the second successive year Xavi asserted himself in a main event. The preceding summer, Barca's maestro was the best player at the 2008 European Championships, leading Spain to their first major trophy in 44 years. In Rome, he punctuated his performance in the 70th minute with a perfect cross for Messi, dropping a ball in the middle of a triangle formed by van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and John O'Shea, allow the Argentine an empty right side of goal for a header from the edge of the six.
Barcelona's 2-0 victory stands as the high point of what could yet be the most remarkable run of club football in the game's history, though that high could be eclipsed Saturday at Wembley. But with two years' hindsight and the benefit of seeing Barcelona's subsequent accomplishments, the story of Barca's Olimpico dominance may have come a bit apocryphal.
The importance of that first goal, coming against the run of play, cannot be overstated. And even if some see that explanation as exaggeration, we must note: A series of Manchester United players gave a terrible account of themselves. Nobody besides Cristiano Ronaldo tested Victor Valdes. Wayne Rooney gave one of the most transparent performances of his career. Starting Anderson over Scholes backfired, and the defense completely collapsed on Messi's goal.
None of which should indict United. Even clear favorites have bad days. At this level of the competition, your opponent is more than capable of taking advantage of your A- game, let alone your C+.
If there is anything we can learn from Rome (besides the greatness of Barcelona), it's about the significance of favorites: They're meaningless once the match starts. Favorites provide structure to our narratives, something that doesn't matter once the game provides its new plot.
While breaking down each of Saturday's matchup, we refer to history as part of the fanatical process of learning everything and anything about the conflict. Yet what's more valuable than the buildup is knowing all the analysis can be subverted by something as common as an early counter attack and a sudden change in score, creating a dramatically different set of circumstances than the one that supported our predictions.
Predictions aren't that difficult to subvert.
Richard Farley is the editor of and a contributing writer to FoxSoccer.com. He can be reached on Twitter at @richardfarley.