Messi's Barcelona beats Man U 3-1 in final
Manchester United players look on after being defeated by Barcelona in the Champions League final soccer match at Wembley Stadium, London, Saturday, May 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
WEMBLEY, United Kingdom - Barcelona and Lionel Messi put their places among football's all-time greats beyond all doubt Saturday as the Argentina striker scored one goal and created another in a mesmerizing 3-1 Champions League final win over Manchester United.
Barcelona justified its status as overwhelming favourite by dominating possession with trademark one-touch passing. But with Wayne Rooney having equalized Pedro Rodriguez's first-half opener, the Spanish champions could not force the crucial breakthrough until the Argentina striker conjured a 54th-minute solo strike from the edge of the area.
There seemed to be no space as Messi was tracked by fullback Patrice Evra, but the two-time world player of the year spotted a gap between the central defenders and hit a shot down the middle, beating goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar for pace.
Man-of-the-match Messi followed his 53rd goal of a remarkable season with a feint and run that eventually led to David Villa receiving possession on the edge of the area, from where the Spain striker curled a shot into the top corner.
A third Champions League title in six seasons and fourth overall means that only Liverpool, AC Milan and fierce rival Real Madrid have won more European Cups than Barcelona's four.
"I feel privileged," Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said. "You always want to win, but the way we have won is what I am most proud of. This is the way we want to play football.
"Lionel is the best player I have seen and probably the best I will ever see."
Messi was typically taciturn in his celebration.
"I'm very happy about the match," Messi said. "We were the better team. We deserved to win."
No team has dominated Europe so comprehensively since Madrid's three titles in five seasons from 1998-2002, and even that spell was punctuated by barren seasons.
Guardiola has now won 10 titles — including two European Cups — in his three years in charge of the club he served as a player for 17 years. Alex Ferguson, the most decorated manager in English football history, has needed 25 years with United to win the same number of Champions League titles.
"They do mesmerize you with their passing and we never really did control Messi," Ferguson said. "But many people have said that.
"In my time as manager, it's the best team I've faced."
With Pedro scoring Barcelona's opening goal midway through the first half from an imaginative through ball from stand-in captain Xavi Hernandez, the win was as comprehensive as its 2-0 victory over United in the 2009 final in Rome.
"When Rome finished, I thought we had played a good game, but when I looked at it again I wasn't that impressed," Guardiola said. "But it has served its purpose.
"I think we played much better than the game two years ago."
The performance was so comfortable that Guardiola was able to bring on regular captain Carles Puyol for the last few moments, giving the injury-hit defender the chance to play a part in a memorable triumph.
But in a gesture symbolizing Barcelona's team ethic, Puyol handed the armband over to Eric Abidal — whose place in the team had been in doubt after he had surgery this season to remove a liver tumour — and the France defender lifted the famous trophy.
"Players are human beings," Guardiola said. "Carles has made a great gesture and it has made us stronger."
United improved upon its 2009 final performance in Rome and did equalize in the 34th through Rooney, but could do little to disrupt Europe's dominant footballing force.
Xavi orchestrated play from in front of Sergio Busquets, while Andres Iniesta and Messi tormented United with the pinpoint accuracy of their passing.
For half an hour, the match followed the same pattern as the 2009 final. United unsettled Barcelona with constant pressure on the man in possession and dominated the first 10 minutes before the Spanish league champions burst into life.
Barcelona pushed the United players deep into their own half and kept them there, with Xavi, Villa, Iniesta and Messi finding space where none seemed to exist.
Xavi created the first goal, drawing four opponents by dribbling to the edge of the area before releasing a diagonal pass into the path of Pedro, who arrived down the right to hit a firm shot past Van der Sar at his near post.
United responded by returning to its pressing game and it yielded an equalizer within seven minutes. From its own throw, Barcelona gave away possession on the right touchline to spark a five-player move as skilful as any in the match.
Rio Ferdinand, Fabio da Silva and Michael Carrick were all involved before Rooney carried the ball to the edge of the area and, slipping it to Ryan Giggs with the outside of his right boot, continued his run.
The veteran Giggs controlled with one touch and knocked it back to with his second, giving Rooney the perfect set-up to curl a shot past the reach of goalkeeper Victor Valdes and in at the far post.
But after emerging more than a minute late from the dressing room, Barcelona showed its mettle by retaining possession for almost 2 1/2 minutes at the start of the second half.
Messi's solo effort then sent the Barcelona fans massed at the west end of the 90,000-seat stadium wild, and the volume was just as loud when Messi twisted and turned past substitute Nani near the right corner flag and carried the ball into the area.
The diminutive No. 10 lost control just when he looked likely to supply a killer pass but Busquets did it for him, finding Villa in space. The Spain striker looked up and sent the ball curling past Van der Sar.
The former Netherlands goalkeeper had already made stops from Messi, Xavi and Iniesta in his final match before retirement, but could do little but watch it sail past him.
"This is the reason I came to Barcelona," Villa said. "I'm very happy, very satisfied. We have a team with ambition, a team with the will to win."
Barcelona: Victor Valdes, Dani Alves (Carles Puyol, 88), Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal, Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez (Ibrahim Afellay, 90), Lionel Messi, David Villa (Seydou Keita, 86).
Manchester United: Edwin van der Sar, Fabio da Silva (Nani, 69), Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick (Paul Scholes, 77), Ryan Giggs, Park Ji-sung, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez.
Stuart Condie can be reached at http://twitter.com/condieinlondon