Barcelona were crowned European champions for the third time – and the second in four seasons – as a vibrant display of pass and move, capped by goals in either half from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi, defeated Manchester United in Rome.
United were bidding to become the first team to successfully defend the trophy in the UEFA Champions League era and began an open contest at breakneck speed, Cristiano Ronaldo threatening three times. In the tenth minute, however, Eto’o put the Spanish champions ahead and they never looked back. Xavi Hernández struck a post early in the second period and, though the clinching second goal did not arrive until the 70th – via, unusually, the head of Messi – Josep Guardiola’s side were worthy winners. The 38-year-old therefore becomes only the sixth man to lift the European Champion Clubs’ Cup as player and coach, while United are the sixth club to lose the final as holders.
Fourteen of the players who started the game had featured in a UEFA Champions League final before, yet initially it seemed United’s experience would prove more telling with Ronaldo going close for the holders three times inside the first nine minutes. The FIFA World Player of the Year made his presence felt with barely a minute on the clock, unleashing a viciously dipping free-kick that Víctor Valdés could only parry; former United defender Gerard Piqué’s last-ditch tackle was all that prevented Ji-Sung Park from converting the rebound. Ronaldo then had Valdés scrambling across goal twice in as many minutes with shots from distance. If an early breakthrough looked imminent, disastrously for United it arrived when Barcelona struck with their first attack of substance.
The fit-again Andrés Iniesta was the orchestrator, finding Eto’o inside the area, but there was still plenty for the Cameroon striker to do with Nemanja Vidić in close attendance. One swift turn inside the centre-back’s challenge later, Eto’o was free to prod a fierce shot inside Edwin van der Sar’s near post. United’s previously vocal supporters were stunned into silence and their team mirrored that reaction, with Barcelona enjoying the better of the half thereafter. Perhaps not surprisingly against the competition’s best defence, however, clear chances were at a premium with long-range efforts from Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernández, and a low cross from Messi fumbled by Van der Sar, the best Barça could muster.
Sir Alex Ferguson had said before the match that his best team talks “usually come to me about three in the morning” and the Scot sorely needed inspiration in his half-time instruction, opting to introduce Carlos Tévez in place of Anderson. This did little to stem the tide. Thierry Henry tricked his way past Rio Ferdinand only to shoot weakly against Van der Sar’s right knee before Xavi curled a free-kick beyond the goalkeeper, the post coming to United’s rescue. Then Wayne Rooney’s right-wing centre bounced over Park’s lunge and, slowly but surely, the holders began to edge their way back into proceedings, disrupting Barcelona’s rhythm though creating little of their own.
Twenty minutes from time, that hard work was undone as Xavi was allowed to advance down the right. With time and space, the midfielder delivered a pinpoint cross to Messi, enjoying similar freedom, and the UEFA Champions League’s top scorer produced a fabulous header for his ninth goal of this season’s competition. Valdés promptly denied Ronaldo to keep the two-goal cushion intact though the better chances continued to come at the other end, Van der Sar saving from Carles Puyol twice and Iniesta. Sir Alex therefore missed out on joining Bob Paisley as the only manager to win three European Cups; Barça become the first Spanish side to win league, cup and UEFA Champions League in the same season and this is surely only the start for Guardiola’s wonderfully inventive team.