It didn't quite turn out the way I predicted but Barcelona were crowned European champions for the fourth time in twenty years in glorious style. Manchester United were subjected to utter domination for the entire match with the exception perhaps of the first ten minutes. The domination in this, a club match on the grandest scale, is testament to Barcelona's now irrefutable place among the pantheon of football's great teams. To Hungary '54, Brazil '70 and Ajax '72, add Barcelona '11.
The plaudits will go to Lionel Messi and understandably so. He is a player of extraordinary class, a graceful juggernaut that not one defender throughout the world is capable of stopping. Yet this Barcelona team is so much more than one man, as talented as that man is. Every single player has a crucial role to play, a task to fulfill to help send their team on the way to victory. The attackers must defend and the defenders must attack, for that is the Barça way. When the opposition has the ball, Pedro and David Villa will chase down defenders until they force an error and regain possession for their team. Gerard Piqué will stride into the opponent's half, head aloft at all times, searching for an incisive pass. They are the contemporary embodiment of totaalvoetbal, forty years after Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff first laid the template at the club.
If, however, we were to single out one player as the man who makes Barcelona tick, it would not be Messi but the peerless Xavi. Xavi Hernández simply oozes class. Tonight he completed 124 passes, an incredible figure that no other player in Europe can ever expect to achieve. Put into context, that's three times more than United's top passer on the night (Rio Ferdinand managed 40). He is the fulcrum on which every match rests, the man that lets Barcelona play. And yet, were it not for Barcelona's other diminutive geniuses, he would often be the smallest player on the pitch at a tiny 5"7. Xavi's brilliance makes a mockery of the notion that only the best athletes can dominate a game, a notion profoundly embedded in the British and Irish psyche to the extent that a player of genuine skill from these isles is the exception and not the rule. Barcelona's cantera focuses on the skill of these smaller players, safe in the knowledge that their faith will be vindicated as the players age. The fruits of La Masia's labour is this great Barcelona team we see today, the smallest team in Europe yet still the best.
Owned by their own supporters and, up until the beginning of next season, never bearing the name of a sponsor on their shirt, the club is clearly a rather special organisation. Such fawning over their values grates with numerous people but it is difficult to argue that they remain a class above clubs such as Real Madrid, a club that prides itself in gentlemanly conduct yet frequently attacks referees, or Chelsea, the plaything of a wealthy oligarch. While by no means are Barcelona a miserly outfit (no other team in world sports pays more in wages), they do not rely on the investment of some sugardaddy for success. The products of the cantera are equally, in fact, more important than the big-money signings. For every Dani Alves there's a Sergio Busquets, for every David Villa, a Pedro. The club has become a self-sustaining model that will continue to produce players with the Barcelona ideology imprinted in their minds, the legacy of Cruyff and Michels' groundwork.
These myriad virtues make it easy to overlook the unsavoury aspects of some of the players, notably Busquets' playacting and Alves' whingeing. I will gladly accept this admittedly irritating side to the game if it means Xavi continues to split defences with inch-perfect passes, Iniesta keeps creating space with a deft drop of the shoulder and Messi makes our jaws hit the floor with a glorious piece of improvisation that only he is capable of.
Tonight we were privileged to witness one of football's great teams deliver a superlative performance. I implore the critics to cast aside their animosity towards the negative side of Barcelona's game and the seemingly endless plaudits they receive from the press. Simply enjoy a superb team while they're still at their peak. It will be a long time till we see such a fine collection of players together again.