Kings of Spain

IT is, perhaps, a sign of just how overheated the transfer rumour mill got this season that Barcelona’s two scorers in tonight’s Champions League final were, at various points of the season, both linked with moves to Manchester City.

Now that Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, the man who did so much to help turn City-related rumour-mongering into a national sport, appears to have got his wish to take charge of a Premier League club, maybe we can look forward to Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi being touted for transfers to Portsmouth this summer.

Incredible, really, but it was only seven days ago that City were forced to issue a public denial in response to reports from Madrid claiming that they had made an approach to Messi and been turned down.

City manager Mark Hughes has got used to making such denials at press conferences this season. Less than three weeks ago, he was asked to comment on reports suggesting that he was trying to sign Raul from Real Madrid. “I think that’s No. 73, in terms of players we’ve been linked with this season,” was his wry response.

Shortly after batting back the Messi link at last Friday’s press conference, Hughes was asked for his thoughts on tonight’s match in Rome. He did, after all, play for Manchester United (very successfully) and Barcelona (somewhat less so, as he has himself admitted many times).

If his overall thoughts tended towards the diplomatic, he did make one statement which turned out to be prophetic.

“It may well be that United have to score first,” he said. “If they go behind against a team such as Barcelona, it means they to have to open up to try to get back into the game.

“And Barcelona have the ability to punish you if you do that. So the first goal will be crucial.”

If you take Hughes’ comments literally, tonight’s final was over after 10 minutes. And perhaps it was.

United certainly started tonight’s match as if they knew they had to score first. They pummelled Barca’s defence in the opening stages, had most of the possession, refused to let their opponents’ midfield settle, and could easily have been in front.

Then Eto’o cut inside Nemanja Vidic to poke a shot beyond Edwin van der Sar, and it was as if someone had let the air out of United’s balloon.

No surprise, perhaps, to those who have followed their season closely. Sure, there have been times when they have played exhilarating football. Their extraordinary second-half comeback to beat Tottenham 5-2 a month ago, for instance, was wonderful to watch. But United’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to win everything has been built on a solid defence.

The setting of a new English league record for consecutive clean sheets in Europe has been well documented. But in Europe too, the emphasis has been one of: “We’ll concede fewer than you.”

Before tonight, United had played 12 Champions League fixtures this season. They had kept eight clean sheets, and conceded just six goals. When the strikers haven’t been firing, the defence – held together by Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – has generally seen them through.

But they couldn’t keep Barca out tonight. And with a lead to bolster them, Xavi and Andres Iniesta took control in midfield, allowing the attacking talents of their team-mates to flourish. Hell, even Carles Puyol was getting forward in the second half.

And this, remember, was supposed to be a patched-up Barca team. Rafael Marques and Daniel Milito injured; Daniel Alves and Eric Abidal suspended; Thierry Henry and Iniesta both significant doubts in the fortnight leading up to the final. It’s a wonder coach Pep Guardiola managed to put out a team at all.

But put out a team he did, and they were better than United, hands down. When Messi – all 5ft 7in of him – escaped Ferdinand’s clutches to head home Xavi’s cross midway through the second half, it was no more than his team deserved. Barcelona had earned the right to be not only Kings of Spain, but Kings of Europe. And don’t let Didier Drogba or Jamie Redknapp try to tell you otherwise.

It is some achievement for Guardiola, winning the Spanish version of the Treble (La Liga, Copa del Rey, Champions League) in his first season as a coach, at just 38. To put it into perspective, it took Sir Alex Ferguson 25 years as a boss to win the Treble. Then again, Guardiola didn’t have to start his managerial career at East Stirling.

As a result of his achievement, Guardiola can now look forward to being linked to the manager’s job at any Premier League club who have a couple of billion to rub together over the next 12 months.

Ferguson was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that United had been beaten by the better team. There was pride too, at the end of a season which saw his side play 67 games – only three short of the English all-time record for one season – win three trophies (Premier League, World Club Championship and League Cup) and get within reach of another three (European Super Cup, FA Cup, Champions League).

United and Ferguson can be proud of themselves, even if the season didn’t have its perfect ending. The manager will, I’m sure, want to go one better next season. Would he have retired had United retained the Champions League title? I doubt it. He’s tried stepping down before. There are still more trophies to win yet.

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