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A night to hail Barcelona

Wherever you turn in the Eternal City there are relics of glorious times. Reminders of great battles.

Now you can add the night of May 27, 2009. The night the two mightiest football clubs on the planet, Manchester United and Barcelona, came to the banks of the Tiber and a brilliant Barcelona side departed with their third Champions Cup.

True, United were not at their best in the 2-0 defeat. Far from it. But this was not a night for critics to bury United. It was a time to praise Barcelona.

Rarely has a Champions League final been laden with such adventure and spirit. Seldom has one been blessed with two sides whose first instinct is to attack. And who's second is to attack some more.

So forget for a moment the flaws of Sir Alex Ferguson's side. And let us salute Josep Guardiola's team.

There is no shame in losing to Barcelona, who had won two European Cups previously and contested six finals.

No disgrace in being pipped for European football's greatest prize by a club whose shirt bears the word 'Unicef'.

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Barcelona are part football club, partly a driving force for good, as proved by their copious works of charity.

They just do not show many on the football field. It is not just the sweet passing and the flowing movement of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta and Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi which catches the eye.

It is the way they worry the opposition. The way they keep the ball and when they lose it worry and harry like the police dogs outside the stadium in the police vans, snapping at the heels of United's midfielders all night.

All great sides work hard. But Barcelona, and Xavi in particular, deserve a Nobel prize for industry.

That itself is a virtue. But it is their devotion to the 'Beautiful Game' which is a treasure to behold.

Once Samuel Eto'o had opened the scoring after nine minutes, stepping inside Nemanja Vidic and planting a right-foot shot past Edwin van der Sar, Barcelona settled into their rhythm.

Xavi and Iniesta weaved their patterns, probing patterns always with the threat of incision. On another day Sir Alex Ferguson would have appreciated those midfield brush strokes.

They had so much in common with the ideals of Sir Matt Busby, for whom 16,000 United fans held up a mosaic proclaiming 'For you Matt' before kick-off to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday.

From that moment history was in the air, especially as this was a stadium which held momentous memories for English football fans.

It was here Liverpool won the first of their European Cups against Borussia Moenchengladbach in 1977. Here where Liverpool toppled Roma in their own backyard in 1984. Here where a Paul Gascoigne-inspired England clinched qualification for the 1998 World Cup with as feisty a goalless performance as most can remember.

Here where United were hoping to make it four Champions Cups and climb a rung on the ladder of greatness alongside Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Defeat means United, who equalled Liverpool's record of 18 league titles this season, still lag two behind Liverpool's tally of five European Champions cups.

And Ferguson still trails Bob Paisley by one.

What will have hurt more, however, was that his team did not come close to reaching the imperious heights of this season, notably against Arsenal in the semi-final.

Then Arsenal are not Barcelona.

Could Ferguson have done more? It is doubtful. He threw on Carlos Tevez for Anderson at the start of the second half in an attempt to inject energy. A bid to wrest some control from a midfield which was being swamped by the creativity of the men in blue and red.

But still Edwin van der Sar was required to save with his legs from Henry, and Xavi planted an exquisite free kick against the post.

He threw on Dimitar Berbatov for Ji-Sung Park and there were times when his Fab Four - Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov - looked as if they might find a route to salvation.

But, in truth, it was Ronaldo's temper which came to the boil, not his brilliance, collecting a yellow card for his umpteenth clash with Carles Puyol.

Xavi's brilliant cross and Messi's wonderful header eventually put paid to any thoughts of a 1999-style comeback.

But it is no time for recriminations, though it is a defeat which will hurt Ferguson deeply, if only because he has confirmed this as his best ever squad and repeated endlessly: "This club should have won more European Cups."

Yet sometimes you just have to bow in the face of superior talent.

This was such a night. A night all football lovers on the planet will have appreciated.

A night when it was a privilege to be in Rome and hail the champions.

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