Reliving the UEFA Champions League final 2011 at Wembley
Today, England and Croatia played out a thriller in the Nations League. Winner takes all. A typical Sunday afternoon in England and the venue as iconic as it gets. The Wembley Stadium has hosted some very important matches, this one was no different. We are just going back in time a few years, 7 years to be precise. The purpose of turning the clock back? To relive the greatest ever Champions League Final.
The semi-finals between Los Blancos and the Blaugrana served as a perfect appetizer to the biggest spectacle. Barcelona and Real Madrid collided for the 4th and 5th time respectively that season. The mind games had begun even before the actual game. Jose Mourinho, in the press conference openly called out Pep, saying that he was criticizing referees for giving right decisions. What happens next? The bald man walks into the press room at Santiago Bernabeu and responds.
"Tomorrow at 8:45 pm we will play a match on the field. He has won the entire year outside of the pitch, but on the pitch, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose"- Pep Guardiola
A long night followed in Santiago Bernabeu. Jose Mourinho came in for a draw, a 0-0 draw. The Real Madrid team frustrated the visitors who were keeping plenty of the ball. But the essential red card for a Madrid player came out, and it wasn't Ramos because Madrid still had Pepe. Referee Wolfgang Stark dismissed the Portuguese reducing Madrid to 10 man. Minute 76, and Barcelona edged ahead through Ibrahim Affelay's cross. The scorer, Lionel Andres Messi, still only 23. 10 more minutes later, Mourinho wanted his defense to hold. Messi with a short pass to Busquets and got the return ball.
A mad run by the diminutive Argentine, past Lass Diarra, past Ramos, past Marcelo, covering half the length of the pitch. Accelerating the way past the incoming defenders and side-stepping Ramos at the edge, Messi finished past a helpless Iker Casillas with his right foot. Messi Magic hit the Bernabeu leaving Jose Mourinho to think of yet another excuse.
Manchester United under Sir Alex did not have to break much sweat in the semis but they had work to do in the quarters. Chelsea faced United with the pain of losing a final in the past. However, Sir Alex's United proceeded to the semis beating Chelsea 3-1 on aggregate and eased past Schalke to the finals.
The stage was thus set. For the second time in three years, Manchester United and FC Barcelona would clash in the finals of the UEFA Champions League. The venue as decided by the UEFA Executive Committee in 2009, Wembley Stadium, England. For Barcelona, this was a stadium where they won it for the first time. Johan Cruyff's dream team conquered Europe in 1992. Now, Cruyff's pivotal midfielder Pep Guardiola had built his dream team and got them to Wembley.
This was by no means a game outside the pitch. Both coaches believed in settling disputes inside the pitch. Sir Alex had his dream team and Pep Guardiola had his. For a week, the festival for the celebration of the greatest spectacle took place in London.
May 28 2011, 7:45 BST. The ball was set to be rolling. Pep Guardiola still hadn't sorted out his starting eleven. Whom should he start? Carles Puyol who was feeling a niggle in the knee or Eric Abidal, who just beat cancer.
Until it was one hour before the game, Barcelona wasn't convinced of its starting 11. And then Pep Guardiola decided, Eric Abidal it is. Barcelona without their captain on the pitch.
In India, the IPL had just ended and CSK were about to be lifting the IPL Trophy for the second time running. When the IPL medals were being handed out, the proceedings for the kick-off were taking place in Wembley. 87,500 in attendance at Wembley, millions watching at home. The best a football fan could hope for.
The men in red uniforms and big black headgears brought the Champions League trophy out. Sir Alex came out of his dugout to shake hands with Guardiola, a broad smile on faces of both coaches. Barcelona lined up in their favored 4-3-3 lineup. Victor Valdes guarded the sticks. Pique and Mascherano stood in between Alves and Abidal.
Sergio Busquets stood in the hole between the two central midfielders. Xavi Hernandez with the captain's armband stood side by side with the magical Iniesta. Messi, Pedro, and Villa completed the lineup for Barcelona with Lionel Messi in the false-nine role.
Manchester United played in a 4-4-1-1 with Javier Hernandez up front and Rooney in behind him. Park Ji-Sung and Antonio Valencia took their place as flanking midfielders while Carrick and Giggs were the central midfielders. Fabio, Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evra completed the back-four with Van Der Sar guarding the posts for the last time in his career.
Victor Kassai with music to our ears kept the whistle between his lips and blew some air into it. Chicharito and Rooney, set the ball rolling and Manchester looked for an attack quickly. Michael Carrick with a long ball towards Valencia and Eric Abidal had the advantage. The early warning shot having been fired, United tried again.
A long, looped ball over the defense by Edwin Van Der Sar found a surging Wayne Rooney. Victor Valdes shot from his lines to clear the danger, his first assignment of the night. Rooney showing dangerous signs early.
From that moment, FC Barcelona started their classic possession game. The medium tempo, sleek passing game, and Manchester didn't have a clue what was happening. David Villa and Lionel Messi started causing the problems for the defense. A tidy forward pass from Pique to Villa which was backheeled into Messi.
The defense did not go in for the tackle against the diminutive Argentine, they held their grounds. That moment was enough, Messi threaded a ball all the way to Villa, cleared just in time by Rio Ferdinand.
Barcelona looked in no mood to stop. Xavi Hernandez dictating terms. One pass from Villa towards the right wing and Xavi delivered a beautiful cross in towards the box. Pedro Rodriguez came from behind the defense to have a go.
The defense was caught ball-watching but Pedro failed to make them pay. The sight of Pedro with his forehead to the ground, hands under it and gutted with his miss, still could be pictured in the mind of every Cule. He slammed the Wembley turf in frustration.
Xavi caused more and more problems. The more United let Barcelona retain the ball and pass it around, the more problematic proceedings got for Manchester United.
David Villa attempted twice at goal again. Missing the post in the first attempt followed by a feeble second straight at Van Der Sar. But United were failing again at stopping Xavi. The puppet master was playing with United's defense. They seemed to go the way he wanted them to.
A few more minutes after Villa's shot at goal, Xavi Hernandez received the ball near the half-way line. What does Xavi do normally when the defense is retreating and he has players ahead of him? He threads a through ball. But this time, he waited and continued on his dribble.
The United defense backed near the box with sights set at Xavi but not at the ball. Xavi picked out Pedro with an outside of the foot pass, bypassing all of the defense. No one got near. Pedro having a clear sight at goal, shot the ball past a helpless Van Der Sar.
27 minutes of total control. 1-0 Barcelona, Pedro Rodriguez with the goal. At the touchline, the bald man's face lit up as he celebrated with his fist closed.
After the goal, Barcelona continued on their possession game. For once, United got hold of the ball. Wayne Rooney dribbled forward and found Giggs inside the box. A good return ball by a marginally onside Giggs and Rooney's right foot found a finesse finish past Victor Valdes.
Against the run of play, United got the equalizer to Wembley's delight. Rooney slid into his celebrations. 34 minutes on the clock and it was level at Wembley.
Barcelona kept playing their possession football with attempts from Xavi, Iniesta, and Villa yielding nothing much. A free-kick for Barcelona from shooting range, and Barcelona with yet another passage of play with a touch of beauty. Xavi with a short pass to Busquets, Busquets' first touch inside the box, and Pedro's foot inches away from doubling Barcelona's lead.
Although on level terms Barcelona still looked more ominous of the two sides. And then came Lionel Messi through the defense with an unstoppable run. The 23-year-old took on Evra, Carrick, and Ferdinand all alone before finding the open David Villa. Villa's touch into the box, whiskers away from Lionel Messi's sliding foot.
The 23-year-old Messi lay with his face down on the turf but could do nothing about the missed chance. Half-time at Wembley with the scores level on 1-1. Manchester hardly had a sight of the ball.
At that time, little did Wembley know what the little genius has in store for the second half. Victor Valdes recalled in the recent documentary called, "Take the ball, Pass the ball" about Pep's halftime advice.
Pep told his team. " I told you if you get me this far, I will win you the cup. Now we have got here, I will make sure you win the cup". The conviction that Guardiola had within was the conviction that Barcelona played with the whole second half.
Every Barcelona fan at home could sense it coming. This performance was a once in a lifetime performance for some teams. Not just at Camp Nou, they did this all season and here they were enjoying at Wembley.
The second half at the Wembley started with Barcelona still asserting their superiority in the game. Messi attempted from the edge of the box from a rebound, but the shot was cleared by Patrice Evra's head. Messi stood at his place, wondering what has to give. Time had to.
With time, came tiredness from the defense, with time concentration levels dropped. Barcelona already crowded the midfield with Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. Messi dropped in deep giving the numerical advantage to Barcelona.
Soon. Iniesta found Messi open with the defense not pressing him. Away from a little press of Ji-Sung and Messi opened fire at the goal from long-range. The ball curled away from the tall Dutch keeper as Lionel Messi gave Barcelona the advantage again.
It was coming. It was inevitable, the best player in the world stepped up to the occasion. Messi went wild into celebrations, running straight near the advertising boards where the Barcelona fans were seated. A huge kick to the board and Messi let out his excitement along with the fans.
There was still time for things to change but they won't change. There was absolutely no chance that Barcelona was falling for a counter-attack again. The diminutive man was not done.
Iniesta picked him out with a similar pass that brought his first goal. Messi turned into the box and Van Der Sar somehow kept his shot out. He came again with a cheeky backheel attempt at goal which was cleared.
Attempt after attempt by Barcelona was put to waste. And it was Messi again, through the right-wing blistering into the box. He tried to pick out Busquets and did. Busquets with a pass to Villa, a long-range shot, dipping into the top corner. David Villa hit the coup de grace on Manchester United.
69 minutes on the clock. 3-1 Barcelona and the history of 1992, was now just 20 minutes away from repeating itself. Messi dropped to his knees celebrating Villa's goal. The kid had that satisfaction, "Yes, our team did it".
Personal milestones were the least anybody thought about in that Barcelona team. Evident from the way that Messi celebrated Villa's goal. The remaining minutes flew past with Manchester attempting a few shots at goal.
Paul Scholes got a few minutes on the Wembley pitch. Pep decided to give Carles Puyol a few minutes of the finals. The captain on for the final three minutes.
Once Victor Kassai blew the final whistle, Barcelona players ran into the pitch in ecstasy. Messi fell into Villa's arms with a smile of satisfaction. He would be announced as the UEFA and the Fans' Man of the Match. The moments the whistle went off, Carles Puyol walked up to Xavi and talked a bit.
The captain's armband came out of his hands and he went straight up to Abidal and handed it over. As the Barcelona players walked up to collect their medals, Abidal came in last. A bit of wetness in his eyes and he collected the trophy and waved it in the air. The trophy passed on from player to player as young Lionel Messi led his team onto the pitch to continue with the celebrations.
The night at Wembley was perhaps the best Champions League finals performance, by a player, by a team, and by a coach. Outclassing Sir Alex's legendary Manchester United, Barcelona lifted their 4th Champions League title. A night that justified Pep's Barcelona as one of the best teams in sporting history.
A night that justified Lionel Messi's status as the best player in the world. Football won that day. No ugly fights, no refereeing errors, no controversy. Just the ball rolling and the Blaugrana controlling it, with the white shirts getting nowhere close to it.
In an attempt to win the Champions League title, Barcelona exemplified what possession football can do. 90 minutes seemed less. The game just flew away. How could anyone feel sleepy with a beautiful sight in front?
That night, Johan Cruyff must have smiled. His brand of football, his philosophy, the cusp of quality and result was achieved by Barcelona that day. Many have dominated the game to win a title but that kind of beautiful football hasn't been seen many times.
The story of a Champions League final at Wembley.