Barcelona confirmed their place in the pantheon of football’s greatest sides on Saturday, outclassing Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley to claim their second Champions League crown in three years.
Goals from Pedro, Lionel Messi and David Villa secured a deserved victory for the Catalan magicians after England international Wayne Rooney had raised United’s hopes with a well-taken first-half equaliser.
The star of an electrifying team performance was Argentinian striker Messi, the 23-year-old maestro whose brilliant effort on 54 minutes saw him equal Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of 12 goals in a single Champions League campaign.
It also took Messi’s tally for the season to an astonishing 56 goals in 62 games for club and country, and propelled Barcelona towards their fourth victory in club football’s most prestigious competition.
In a poignant finale, the honour of hoisting aloft the famous silver trophy was given to Barcelona’s French defender Eric Abidal, playing just two months after undergoing surgery to remove a liver tumour.
United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, who had been determined to avoid a repeat of the 2009 final in Rome, where Pep Guardiola’s men had struck early before going on to clinch a 2-0 win, conceded Barca were best on the night.
“I expected us to do better but at the end of the day we were beaten by the better team,” said. “They are the best team we have ever played, they are at the peak in this cycle of their team.
“There was good evidence we are a consistently good European team but we were beaten by the best team in Europe and there is no shame in that.”
Of his own side he added: “We expected to do better, simple as that.”
Barcelona coach Guardiola meanwhile lavished praise on man-of-the-match Messi. “He is the best I have ever seen and probably the best I will ever see,” Guardiola told reporters.
“Messi is unique, he is a one-off.”
Despite a bright opening United were ultimately handed a defeat that was just as emphatic as their loss two years ago, with the Spanish champions revelling in the wide open spaces of Wembley.
United, lining up in an aggressive 4-4-2 formation, had harried Barcelona relentlessly in the early exchanges as they sought to prevent the Catalans from settling into their flowing passing rhythm.
But it was not long before Barcelona found their feet and United were to spend much of the opening half an hour, and the match, firmly on the back foot.
Villa shot wide after being picked out by Messi on the edge of the area and moments later Pedro went close after Xavi and Gerard Pique combined menacingly.
A jinking run by Messi set alarm bells jangling in the Manchester United defence before the striker threaded a lovely pass to Pedro only for United skipper Nemanja Vidic to slide in with an important block.
United had Vidic to thank for another superb piece of defending shortly afterwards, the Serbian judging his tackle brilliantly to deny Messi.
But on 27 minutes, Barcelona’s relentless pressure finally reaped its reward. An exquisite pass from Xavi struck with the outside of the boot picked out Pedro and the winger coolly clipped his shot beyond van der Sar.
At that point Ferguson must have been fearing a repeat of Rome.
But crucially, United were able to find an equaliser within seven minutes.
Rooney combined passes with Michael Carrick out wide on the right before racing towards goal.
Another one-two with Ryan Giggs, looking perilously close to off-side, and Rooney was in space.
The England international took his time and swept in a curling shot beyond Victor Valdes to round off a wonderful move.
The goal clearly rattled Barcelona, but the Catalans were soon threatening again. Messi went on a surging run and picked out Villa but then just failed to control his team-mate’s return pass and United breathed again.
United started the second half positively but again Barcelona were swiftly on top as the warning lights were flashing again.
A fine save from van der Sar denied Dani Alves after the Brazilian was played in by Andres Iniesta before Vidic headed away Messi’s follow up shot.
But on 54 minutes Barcelona were back in front.
Messi gathered the ball 25 yards out, and with Patrice Evra standing off fatally, the Barca talisman buried a thunderous low shot beyond van der Sar.
With Barcelona firmly on top it was left to Villa to apply the coup de grace on 69 minutes, curling in a majestic strike after another marvellous run from Messi.