Barcelona were a class above Man United tonight, taking the lead through Pedro Rodríguez and responding to Wayne Rooney’s equaliser with two superb second-half strikes from Lionel Messi and David Villa.
As in Rome, his team raced out of the blocks, pushing up and aiming to deny Barcelona the time and space to find their stride, and briefly the ploy worked. Barcelona seemed edgy as Hernández hustled a defender into losing the ball on the edge of his area. Javier Mascherano, starting in central defence in place of Carles Puyol with Éric Abidal at left-back, then failed to deal with Edwin van der Sar’s punt down the middle, forcing Víctor Valdés into urgent action to deny Rooney.
Inevitably, though, Barça clicked into gear, and they fashioned the first clear opening on the quarter-hour as Xavi Hernández drove in a low cross that Pedro, drifting free of Fabio, turned wide. Barcelona soon had United pinned back as more chances came. Villa flashed a shot narrowly wide before forcing a low save from Van der Sar. A superb Nemanja Vidić challenge then foiled Messi yet, in the 27th minute, United were undone.
Xavi was the architect, advancing into United territory and picking out Pedro with a diagonal pass. The winger’s movement had carried him clear of Vidić on the right side of the box and he applied a cool finish, sidefooting the ball into the near corner with Van der Sar wrongfooted.
United responded seven minutes later with a fine equaliser, their first and only attempt on target. After Barcelona had lost the ball from an Abidal throw-in, Rooney surged forward on a one-two with Michael Carrick. He then slipped a pass to Ryan Giggs inside the area and met the Welshman’s return ball with a superb curled finish into the far corner.
The second half was all Barcelona as they moved to another gear that United could not match. Dani Alves missed a good scoring chance before Messi restored their advantage after 54 minutes. Collecting a pass from Messi, the Argentinian cut inside Patrice Evra and punished Vidić’s failure to close him down by sweeping the ball past Van der Sar from 20 metres.
The little magician could have had more goals as Barcelona went for the kill. Van der Sar denied him with his legs before Fabio kept out his back-heeled effort with a goal-line block. Van der Sar, on his final appearance, offered a fitting reminder of his class with a full-length dive to foil Xavi yet he had no chance with Villa’s third goal after 69 minutes.
Although United stopped Messi’s surge into the box, substitute Nani lost out to Sergio Busquets who teed up the Spain striker to curl an exquisite finish into the top corner.
It is unusual to see United so outplayed as they were tonight, but they had no answer for Messi and Xavi. A performance for the ages by Barcelona as they fully deserved their win.