The Ghost of Johan | a UCL Final Reaction

I'm not going to go into agonizing detail of wax eloquent about Barça's almost routine handling of the massively dangerous Manchester United attack (after about the first 10 minutes or so). Nor am I going to start advocating that DC United's possession-based game demands a switch to a Barça-style 4-3-3. Instead, I just thought I'd mention the one thing that kept passing before my eyes as I watched Barcelona defeat Manchester United 2-0 in the UEFA Champions' League final last night: the shadowy presence of Johan Cruyff.

It wasn't primarily to do with "Total Football," though I did see a defensive midfielder playing at center back make a dribbling run beyond his midfield and into the attacking third, only to pass to another advancing defender. And, now that I think about it, I recall a defensive midfielder as the furthest player forward, closing down the opposition's keeper, while Barcelona were defending. And a fullback, on the end of a long spell of possession, going one-on-one with the keeper, with 10 minutes remaining and supposedly protecting a 2-0 lead.

Nor was it really in the way Messi approached the center forward position, roving freely about the pitch. One moment he would be the furthest forward, leading the line. The next he would drop off into midfield, often quite deep, to gain possession and start the move forward. Wasn't there another slight dribbling maestro who played the position in much the same way (though with a more nuanced passing game)? What was his name again?

(As an aside here, one of my favorite moments of the final was Messi charging forward with the ball, only to be sandwiched by three United defenders. The quartet fell in a heap, but Messi sprang back on his feet immediately, only to have the referee blow the whistle instead of playing the advantage. Messi's reaction? A smile, perhaps a little wry, for the referee. Can we take a moment to imagine the thermonuclear tantrum of...oh, I don't know, let's say one Cristiano Ronaldo in said situation? But back to our story...)

No, the ghostly hand of Cruyff was most evident in the tick-tock, pass-and-move game that had United chasing shadows for long stretches, particularly in the second half. The neat, short passes that seemed to be going nowhere until a sudden change of pace...a quick incisive ball...a darting run...and Barça were at United's throat, seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Yes, if United had capitalized on their early dominance of possession and chances, or if Eto'o had failed to convert Barcelona's only early look at net, the dance may have ended quite differently. But on this night, once the blaugrana had settled into their rhythm, there was only going to be one winner, and that winner was dancing to a tune called by the ghost of Johan.

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