Spain’s Barcelona offshoot achieved Spain’s aims of perfect football better than the Spanish team managed, or more likely Spain were the offshoot of Barcelona. Barca defined the Spanish ultra-possession style but with a definite brief to be quick and constantly look for goals, supplemented by a certain Argentine not in the Spanish line-up. After losing their opening game to forgotten club Numancia, Xavi and Iniesta again took control in midfield, and up front developed one of the most exciting forward trios. Eto’o, one of the previous year’s Rat Pack had stayed, against the wishes of new coach Pep Guardiola.
Guardiola was a Barcelona old boy from the 90s, a home-grown passing midfielder who consequently put his faith in the club’s home-grown passing midfielders. He always relied on the local boys at the expense of outsiders not shaped by the club from birth, of whom Guardiola was always suspicious. Xavi was of course the exemplar and main beneficiary of the Guardiola’s new regime. His career was already half over before he became a world fixture.
Nonetheless Eto’o was retained and occupied the central forward position with dazzling results. Henry, who had appeared almost finished the year before, took up a position on the left of the attack, which suited him as he did a lot of his attacking over the years through the left anyway, his trademark goal opening his body to score to the far right post. On the right was one of the greatest players of all time.
Lionel Messi was an Argentine who had come to Barcelona as a young teenager. They had helped him afford a necessary supply of growth hormone and had taken him into the fold. He emerged as the quickest dribbler, the sharpest shooter, the most ingenious scorer in the tightest spaces, the best passer and team-oriented player, as well as the most prolific goal scorer Spain had ever seen. He would end up as the leading individual scorer of the next four Champions Leagues.
Barcelona’s year can be summed up in their Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich, who were completely pummelled and were already down 4-0 at halftime, the final score of that first leg. It was as great a performance at the highest level as we’re likely to see. The front three worked together amazingly. Messi cut in to score his usual open-bodied left-footed slot from the right. Eto’o was supplied by Messi to score from a tight angle after less than fifteen minutes. The rest of the half continued to be a waltz until the end, when Henry got to the by-line like a winger and cut it in for Messi to tap home; then the ball trickled to the left from Messi’s work and Van Bommel’s hard foul on him for Henry to open and score first-time to the far post.
Barcelona also thrashed Real Madrid away 6-2 in the title showdown as the season wore down to a close, sandwiched between their two supremely momentous games against Chelsea. That year and from then on Barcelona and Real both won virtually every game in Spain for the next five years, killing the Spanish league once and for all after such teams as Valencia (two titles), Deportivo La Coruña (one), Sevilla (excellent winners of two consecutive UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007) and Villarreal had previously given Spain a spark.
Chelsea and Liverpool break each other
Nonetheless, whatever Barcelona’s advancement, for the third year in a row three of the four semi-finalists were English. Liverpool and Chelsea played the last of their annual matchups, this time in the quarter-finals. The first four of these matches in 2005 had produced just the one “ghost goal” that probably did not even cross the line; their final match of 2009 alone produced eight of them.
Chelsea won the breathless tie 7-5. It was almost as if the excessive familiarity had finally ‘broken’ both of them down from a defensive point of view. Chelsea had seemingly sown it up at Anfield in an excellent performance in the first leg, new Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic scoring identical headers followed by Drogba adding to the 3-1 away win, meaning that Liverpool needed at least three goals at Chelsea to avoid elimination. It was a tall order, 1-3 at home with the away goals rule an almost impossible score to reverse in Europe.
But Chelsea’s old woes against Liverpool resurfaced, conceding two soft goals before halftime at home. Liverpool scored a weak free kick past an out-of-position keeper and a penalty. Chelsea, who were clearly the better team on paper and generally on the field in both legs too, steadied with three goals in the second half to lead 6-3. Liverpool were seemingly down and out but scored twice in a minute, again through a soft deflection and then finally a ‘pure’ goal to take the lead on the night and one away from winning on away goals. But Chelsea were not to be denied, Lampard putting in at the end for a 4-4 draw and squaring the ledger at two victories apiece overall.
They had risen together (in 2005), been joined at the hip throughout and would now fall together, neither a factor after this season apart from one blue Indian summer down the road. They had separately and together put together a half-decade at the top of the Champions League.
Chelsea vs. Barcelona, the indefinable
The semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona was the defining Champions League tie of the generation. It seems strange that a tie that only produced two goals and won in an extremely fortuitous manner could say so much about the game itself. As a preview Brian Phillips stated that Barcelona 2009 might be on the verge of fulfilling his hopes that a team who focused on attacking and doing everything ‘properly’, playing the sport to all of its thrilling potential, could rise above a sport whose main concern was always protecting the defence first and anything else was a bonus. They would fulfil his dream, but not in this semi-final. Chelsea’s all-out defence preserved a 0-0 score in Barcelona.
Returning to the theme halfway through, Phillips wrote that Chelsea aren’t the problem per se. Chelsea are simply a reality of football, and they’ll do what they have to do. If Barcelona’s attacking team is to transcend the game, this is exactly the sort of opposition they will have to find a way to overcome. One of the problems, he continued, is that Barcelona are accustomed to picking apart defences like a watchmaker, methodically and deliberately, and when that doesn’t work they have no idea about other methods, they can’t and won’t clatter through a defence with directness and force à la Didier Drogba. This analysis would be revisited at the following year’s World Cup, Barcelona and Spain sharing both players and attributes.
Nine minutes in in London, Chelsea’s ever dependable, energetic, all-purpose Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien scored a screamer of a side-volley off the crossbar from twenty-five metres out. Barcelona were left to huff and puff for the entire match but with no results. Henry was out injured and Iniesta was never so comfortable or effective playing on the left. Chelsea, while not actually playing with the ball or attacking so often, dominated the game to the extent that Barcelona only recorded one shot on goal at the very end. Drogba, who was coming back from injury and out of form, missed a chance to seal it; Anelka chose to dive rather than run on and take a shot at goal; and the referee refused about three penalty appeals for Barcelona handballs in the box, one of which probably was a penalty.
All was lost for Barca, but in the last minute Chelsea couldn’t clear the ball, Messi mopped up and squared the ball for Iniesta at the top of the penalty box. He swept in a first time shot into the top corner.
There was time for one more handball appeal, for Michael Ballack to sprint half the length of the field directly in the referee’s face, and post-game for Drogba directly to the camera to call the whole affair a fucking disgrace, quote unquote. For the second year in a row (and the following year made three times) he ended the Champions League red-carded in his own effing disgrace. Barcelona had won 1-1 on away goals.
If Iniesta had not scored in the last minute, Manchester United and Chelsea would be playing their second consecutive final against each other and the Spain/Barcelona era may not have even happened. Phillips called the result uninterpretable. He said Barca ‘deserved’ it because they always possessed the ball and looked for goals; and that Chelsea ‘deserved’ it because they controlled the second game with “a dominance that was almost contemptuous”.
Whatever the ramifications, Barcelona had begun their era of dominance on this shaky foundation, and the English era was finished. Chelsea had in 2008 and 2009 lost both ties 1-1 on a technicality after controlling both of them. The players mentioned curses in the dressing room and it seemed they were destined never to win it.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s last run in red
Manchester United had been exceedingly lucky with the draw, going through a scratchy patch but restricted to merely Arsenal, Villarreal and Porto in their half of the draw, guaranteeing them a second consecutive final. Ferguson had ruined the 2008 trinity, mistakenly going for forward Dimitar Berbatov at the expense of Carlos Tevez. Months later both Ronaldo and Tevez left the club.
Even so, this Champions League campaign was Ronaldo’s masterpiece in his last year with Manchester United, even more effective than the previous winning Champions League season. In the second leg of each tie he scored the header against Inter that relaxed and sealed United in a nervy match and a scorching, incredible 40-metre goal to win a seemingly blown tie, Porto having spiritedly and skilfully drawn 2-2 in Manchester but choking at home. Then in the semi against an out of their depth Arsenal he scored both a 30-metre free kick and a classy team counterattacking goal, followed by a self-assured lip purse and nod to himself.
It had been an excellent Champions League. The final began yet another of Barcelona’s rivalries against often interlocking individual figures: after Barcelona versus Chelsea and Barcelona versus Jose Mourinho (originally the same thing, later to develop in various other forms), now came Barcelona versus Cristiano Ronaldo, and as an extension Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo, the facile football question of the age.
Ferguson, who despite his iron will and longevity was never the greatest match-day coach, for some reason lined up Ronaldo as a forward and Rooney on the wing. Barcelona easily swept the tinkered United aside. United had killed Barcelona for ten minutes before Barcelona finally emerged, Eto’o energetically cut inside and toe-poked a goal in Barca’s first attack of the match. The rest of the game was a procession, although they only added one more goal, Xavi’s wonderful arching centre took United’s tall defenders out and landed directly on diminutive Messi’s head for 2-0. The Mosquito Fleet, someone called them, a bunch of swarming, zippy little things that are impossible to catch.