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Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United Uefa Champions League final
Manchester United Champions League final losers - and they deserved it

[Image: image-7-for-barcelona-v-manchester-unite...021139.jpg]

Not just beaten, but battered.

Battered to a pulp. Battered senseless. Battered so that the pain and anguish may never be forgotten.

Nights like this do not happen to Sir Alex Ferguson or his team, no matter how good are his opponents.

But 15 years after Fergie was forced to tear up his European blueprint by John Cruyff's Barcelona "dream team", he watched the latest Catalan incarnation inflict another 90 minutes of soul-burning heartbreak.

This time, not even Ferguson could stand in the way of Fate, could not conjure a way of cheating footballing death by another Houdini act, as the hopes of glory evaporated in the fetid air of the Eternal City.

There could be no complaints either at the way their unprecedented 25-match unbeaten European run came to such a shuddering, juddering end.

United under Fergie have set the benchmark for sheer resilience, for the raw passion stoked by the cantankerous son of a Govan shipbuilder.

But last night, on the one evening when they needed to dig deep, it simply wasn't there, the seam running empty, the 66th match of a relentless campaign a game too far as they were taken to the cleaners by Lionel Messi and the midfield matadors.

Ferguson will know, will concede, that it was only in the 10 minutes before Samuel Eto'o capitalised on a series of self-inflicted blows, that his side looked ready to claim their place in history and become the first side to retain the Champions League.

At that stage, with Cristiano Ronaldo raining in shots from all parts and angles, Barca looked overcome with nerves, lucky that Victor Valdes escaped when he could not hold the Portuguese winger's vicious swerving free-kick.

Yet that second minute effort was United's only shot on target until the match was effectively over, represented the high water-mark of an evening when the tide receded so quickly.

And once Eto'o struck, making Michael Carrick pay for gifting the ball to Andres Iniesta, asking Nemanja Vidic to regret his weak challenge, forcing Edwin Van Der Sar to bewail his poor effort at a save, the lights went out, one by one.

It was painful to watch. So often this season, United have looked imperious, Ferguson more assured and bullishly confident than at arguably any time in his managerial career.

United do not give the ball away this cheaply. Do not stand and watch as the ball is passed in front of their eyes and behind their backs. Certainly do not fail to create any real threat against a makeshift back line.

But all that and more unfolded in front of Ferguson's disbelieving eyes.

Ferguson tried everything, but his succession of tactical tweaks to try to get Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and substitutes Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov into the game were all stymied instantly by comparative novice Pep Guardiola.

Instead of watching Ronaldo and Rooney swoon and swagger, it was all about the bewitching movement of Messi, the sheer brio of Iniesta and Xavi, the utter domination of a team that surely is about to begin a new era.

How much United missed the competitive drive of the suspended Darren Fletcher, as Anderson disappeared, Carrick suffered, Ryan Giggs looked his age.

United, like Fergie, could do nothing about it. Indeed, the only surprise was that it took until 20 minutes from time for the final blow to be struck.

Before that, Van Der Sar had kept his team in it by denying Thierry Henry after the former Arsenal skipper, fed by Xavi, had dipped his shoulder to saunter past Rio Ferdinand.

Then it was the keeper's left-hand upright to the rescue, keeping out Xavi's bending free-kick. But there was no escape when Messi drifted off the back of Ferdinand to meet Xavi's centre, hanging in the air for an age before picking out the top corner.

Ronaldo, thwarted at the back post, might have brought some life back into the contest but it was not to be. No miracle, no great recovery. Just defeat, which could have been even heavier.

United showed their class at the end, standing and applauding as Carles Puyol received the trophy from UEFA President Michel Platini, kickstarting a Catalan party that went on through to daybreak.

Sadly, it was about the only moment of the evening in which they had, forced to endure the same bitter ache of Final emptiness that Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea have suffered over the last three years.

Now Ferguson, too, knows what Arsene Wenger, Rafa Benitez and Avram Grant went through. And unlike all of them, he cannot claim it was harsh and unfair.

Barcelona, despite the claim, are not "more than a club". But this side IS more than a team. And, for once, United had no answers.

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