The tone and tempo of Saturday's UEFA Champions League final at Wembley stadium in London certainly was expected, as Barcelona used their short, slick passing game to devastating effect in a 3-1 win that saw them crowned champions of Europe for the second time in three years.
But that's not to say the game went completely to script. For the first 12 minutes or so, Manchester United controlled proceedings ... so much so that it was a surprise the Red Devils didn't make their heavy possession in the Barca end pay off with a goal. The surprise choice of Javier Mascherano as a central defender for Barca only added to the tumult.
But the Spanish champions weathered the early storm, and once they got the ball to playmaker Lionel Messi near the center line, the game started to change. When Messi plays in the middle, he attaches the ball to his foot and make a 20- or 25-yard run before ... inevitably ... drawing a foul. Barca's whole gameplan is indeed possession, but it also has a purpose.
In planning to defend Barcelona, you're almost damned if you do and damned if you don't. I thought Man United manager Alex Ferguson was brave to play a 4-4-2 (really, in execution, a 4-4-1-1) by starting Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez alongside Wayne Rooney up top. In theory, that put a lot pressure on the Red Devil's midfield to keep up with Barca's dazzling passes.
But in practice, Man United's choice to play "evens" with Barcelona's midfield, basically four on four, heaped tons of heat on the central-defensive partnership of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, two of the best in the business. But as good as those two are, they don't face players such as Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Inisesta on a weekly basis.
Nothing could really prepare you for that It's not just the fact that the Barcelona team lulls you to sleep with their short passes. As soon as a defender thinks he can take even a second off, there goes the probing, 15-yard pass to a player already in an attacking position because of his prior movement off the ball. As a coach, I wish I could watch one of Barca manager Pep Guardiola's training sessions.
The whole vibe of the team is built on patience followed by extreme ruthlessness. But it's the shape and movement that allow for that kind of soccer to realize itself. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have a world-class talent like Messi, whose goal in the second half made it 2-1 in Barca's favor and tipped the momentum scale in a big way. As the Man United defenders tired, Barca's possession grew in scale.
One odd bit of management by Man United's Ferguson (and it's so rare to ever say that) was not even including striker Dimitar Berbatov on the bench. The Bulgarian surely is an enigma, but he also bagged more than 20 goals in the Premier League this season. To not have that firepower in reserve, especially when you have to chase the game? Puzzling, to say the least.
In the end, the quality of the Barca goals by Pedro, Messi and David Villa were more than enough to counter Rooney's moment of individual brilliance, and Barcelona goalkeeper gave a very underrated performance. Top to bottom, Barca has a better team than Man United. Sometimes that doesn't always equal a win, but on this night in London the brilliance of a special Spanish side was more than enough.
Speaking of comprehensive performances, the Philadelphia Union fashioned a 6-2 road win over Toronto FC on Saturday afternoon. Two goals apiece from Justin Mapp and Danny Mwanga led Philly's offensive outburst, and the win kept 'the U" in first place in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference. What a difference from last year.