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Better than the best

india Updated: May 30, 2011 01:16 IST
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So Lionel Messi has finally scored for Barcelona on an English pitch. And how typical that it should have been conjured out of nothing.

He was 30 yards from goal when he picked up an apparently innocuous square pass from Andrés Iniesta. With three touches he had made 10 yards, and Manchester United were just waking up to the danger, with Patrice Evra making a belated sprint to meet the Barcelona No 10, when the Argentinian master calmly cocked his left leg and sent a shot past Edwin van der Sar.

How gently he created havoc. Drifting into remote areas away from his notional markers, time and again he opened space for others while giving himself scope for those irresistible surges. This was the most effective performance by a deep-lying centre-forward since Nandor Hidegkuti scored a hat-trick in Hungary's 6-3 defeat of England on this same pitch in 1953.

The first big shock of the night had come with the absence of Carles Puyol, Barcelona's combative captain and defensive spark plug. The need to improvise a defensive solution recalled the final in Rome two years ago, when Barcelona confronted United with a weakened defence.

Eerily, Saturday night's match began with a very precise echo of that match 24 months ago. And then, just like last time, Barcelona started to play. There was no immediate Eto’o-style bolt from the blue, but gradually they began to find their rhythm with those five-yard exchanges that resemble a game of pass-the-parcel.

And as they did so, the difference in styles became more glaringly apparent than ever. The breakdown of a Barcelona move would be followed by the ball whistling back over their heads in a fruitless attempt to find a United attacker, and the whole tiki-taka process would begin again. All the constructive football was coming from Barcelona, but it took them 27 minutes to score.

Though Wayne Rooney levelled, Barcelona were quickly back into their pitter-patter stride, with Messi all but irresistible as he dribbled through the middle, turned the ball to Villa on the right, and just failed to meet the return as it whistled across the face of Van der Sar’s goal. The second half was more of the same, with Barcelona making United's football look rudimentary, approximate, agricultural. A triumph for artistry, patience, imagination. And not a hint of gamesmanship. Magnificent, actually.