Manchester United: Great But Not Good Enough

There is something strange about the phrase “exquisitely painful”. They’re not two words which seem to belong together. However if there is an occasion that they do actually work together it’s being a Manchester United fan watching the 2011 Champions League final. Their defeat at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s side was horrible yet undeniably right. There are many criticisms that can be levelled at this Barcelona side but at its core this is a team built on devout aesthetic principles which, when put into practise, thoroughly dismantled United with breath-taking verve and swagger. The metronomic pum-pum-pum of their passing is intrinsically wonderful as well as instrumentally devastating. Like Roger Federer at his peak there is something almost uncanny about their imperturbable calm and use of space.

The ultimate measure of a club lies in conquering Europe, a fact Sir Alex Ferguson is acutely aware of. Theoretically the World Club Championship should count for more but the champions of Europe are always the real if not official champions of the world. Although they were always big names in European football until 1999 both Manchester United and Barcelona had only one European Cup to their name apiece. Despite the glorious names that had played for the two sides and the domestic titles that had been racked up there was still the looming shadow of their more successful rivals. Liverpool had four European crowns to their name when Manchester United lifted the treble while Real Madrid were lauding their seven triumphs over Barcelona. Since then all four sides have added further trophies to the cabinet but neither United nor Barcelona are even within striking distance of matching their rivals yet. There is a definite feeling that it is only in the last five years or so that the two clubs have begun to assume their rightful place in the European pantheon.

It should not be forgotten that this is a rather impressive Manchester United side as well. They have four league titles and three Champions League final appearances in the last five years. Yet over the past few seasons their talent has only served to highlight just how special this Barcelona side is. Guardiola’s side have won two games with an aggregate score of 5-1. There is little doubt that United have been their closest competitors for the title of best club in Europe but the gulf between the two clubs is quite astonishing.

Manchester United fans must now face up to a rather unpleasant fact. That their spell of domination in Europe (and three finals in four years is domination) for which they have waited so long is coinciding with one of the greatest teams of all time. Since 2008 the sides have met three times, once in the semi-finals and twice in the final itself. Ferguson’s men dumped the last embers of the Frank Rijkaard era out to go on and win the tournament. After that Barcelona installed Guardiola and they ascended to another level. The likes of Deco and Ronaldinho left to make room for players such as Iniesta, Messi and Busquets. While Ferguson sought to create a team to counter all the various threats that Europe could throw at his side Guardiola trimmed the fat losing any excess flab from the 2006 side.

It is the tragedy of this United side is that it will never be remembered as it should have been. Even more so than the Juventus side of 1996-98 or the Valencia team of 2000-01 this United side reeks of unfulfilled promise. Both of those two sides were beaten by different teams in back-to-back finals and Juventus’ three finals in three years remains the best record of any club since the Champions League began. Yet neither side was built with such painstaking effort as this current Manchester United side. Ferguson has spent decades trying to crack the conundrum of how to win in Europe and yet now after all these years, Barcelona have become virtually unplayable.

This is a Manchester United side that only a few weeks ago tore Chelsea to shreds at Old Trafford. They’re one of the most tactically flexible squads ever, blending youth and experience, class and graft. Yet Barcelona took the second best side in Europe and made them look foolish over 90 minutes for the second time in three years. There can be no talk of a fluke, no cries of “if so-and-so was available”. Just the unhappy knowledge that there is only so much one can do in the face of genius. During any normal period of football this United side could have racked up a number of Champions League titles. They are currently the second best football team on the planet and, had this team existed ten years ago they would almost certainly be the best team on the planet.

It is the great misfortune of Ferguson’s reign that his very best European era has coincided with Guardiola. There was something almost Salieri-esque about Ferguson last night as he watched Xavi, the footballing equivalent of Mozart orchestrate his destruction. For a man who has spent a quarter of a century learning to conquer Europe it must hurt more than we could possibly know but as the man himself said “In my time as manager this is the best team we’ve ever faced.” Perhaps when it comes to greatness it takes one to know one.

David Adelman

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