Twelve minutes from the end of an enthralling, unrelenting Champions League final, two Barcelona legends stood on the touchline and embraced. Andres Iniesta jogged to the touchline, took off the captain’s armband and wrapped it meticulously around the upper arm of Xavi, his replacement. Then Iniesta shoved Xavi out into battle for one last time.
Barcelona’s fans, massed in the giant curve behind the goal to the right, let out a great roar. They understood this moment of symbolism better than anybody. The best team of our generation was saying goodbye to one era and ushering in another in the same instant.
Xavi, their heart and soul through the magical Pep Guardiola years, will leave for Al Sadd in Qatar in the summer and others will follow him away from the Nou Camp. But the greatness will live on. Barcelona proved that. This is a new team now, a team still capable of breathtaking football that can make your heart sing but a team that can be tough and pragmatic, too. A team who know how to win.
Of course, they were beautiful to watch here in the Olympic Stadium as they beat Juventus 3-1 to win their fifth European Cup, joining Bayern Munich and Liverpool in the number of their triumphs. But this was a game they won with guts as well as guile. Juventus made sure of that.
It was a great tribute to Barcelona that they won their fourth Champions League trophy in a decade without Lionel Messi at his best. For once, this game was not about him, even though he had a hand in Barcelona’s first two goals. By his own exalted standards, the Argentine genius had a quiet night. This was a victory for team spirit as well as brilliance.
This was about Iniesta, the man of the match, who set up the first goal for Ivan Rakitic with a piece of typical unselfish skill. This was about Luis Suarez, who scored Barcelona’s second and ran himself into the ground. It was about Neymar, who scored Barcelona’s third with the last kick of the match, taking the total of goals scored by him, Messi and Suarez this season to 122. MSN, they call them in Catalonia.
And, of course, it was about Xavi, the midfield maestro who has underpinned so much of Barcelona’s success. The honour of lifting the trophy was given to him and so keen was he not to let go of the match ball, his final memento, that he shoved it up his shirt so he could have both hands free. Pregnant with joy.
So now the new era has begun. Forget any period of transition and the problems the team were wrestling with early in the season when there was discontent over the coaching of Luis Enrique and people speculated that Messi might even be sold. That’s history. Barcelona, winners of this trophy in 2006, 2009 and 2011, are ready to rule again.
This was probably the hardest won of their last four victories. Juventus, it is said, are a team who do not let you play well and they knew that, if they were to have any chance of lifting the trophy, they had to try to impose their very own Berlin Blockade on the greatest attacking trio in club football.
They had to do it without Giorgio Chiellini, the most redoubtable of their clutch of formidable defenders, who was injured in the build-up to the match. And they had to do it even as the world was still marvelling at Messi’s wonder-goal in the Copa del Rey final last weekend.
As it was, the apple-cart stayed defiantly upright. Juventus pressed Barcelona strongly in the first three minutes and caused Javier Mascherano some discomfort but what the fourth minute brought was different. The first time Barcelona broke the shackles, they scored.
What a goal it was, too. Messi drove an inch-perfect crossfield pass to Jordi Alba. Alba laid it back to Neymar, who fed it in to Iniesta. Some players would have tried to score themselves but Iniesta is way too good to have done that. He dragged the ball into the path of Rakitic instead and the Croatian passed the ball into the empty net.
The game had started with a verse of poetry. Juventus and Arturo Vidal tried to drown it out with some industrial tackling that brought the midfielder an early yellow card but Barcelona were not deterred. Only a brilliant one-handed save by Gianluigi Buffon from Dani Alves’s shot stopped Barcelona doubling their lead before 15 minutes had elapsed.
Barcelona were beautiful, all flicks and unselfish runs and weighted passes and clever angles. When they had the ball, Juventus struggled to look anything other than utterly bewildered. But they did not give up. In fact, they dragged themselves back into the game.
Led by the indefatigable running of Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez, they began to make incursions of their own in the Barcelona box. Alvaro Morata curled a shot wide and, midway through the half, after they had harried Barcelona out of possession, Claudio Marchisio unleashed a piledriver from 25 yards that whistled over Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s bar
Messi was starting to stir. He had seemed almost semi-detached until then, walking his way through some of the game as if he was toying with Juventus, letting others take them apart. Now he began to hint at a greater role.
But 10 minutes after half-time, Juventus stunned Barcelona. Marchisio produced a perfect backheel into the path of Stephane Lichtsteiner and even though his cross went behind Tevez, the Argentine swivelled and shot and Ter Stegen could only push the ball into the path of Morata, who slid it home.
Barcelona were rattled. The Juventus fans increased the volume and their team pressed forward. Tevez lifted a good chance over the bar, Pogba fizzed a dipping shot into Ter Stegen’s midriff.
Pogba protested bitterly when he claimed to have been wrestled to the ground in the Barcelona box but the referee waved play on and that was the reprieve Barcelona needed. Messi surged forward, skipped a tackle on the edge of the box and fired in a low shot that bounced just in front of Buffon. Even Buffon could not deal with it. He parried it and Suarez pounced, lifting it high into the net.
Neymar, who had had a goal ruled out for handball, made amends with the last kick of the game when he rifled a shot past Buffon to put the game finally out of the reach of Juventus.
Forget the power of Bayern Munich and the monied might of Real Madrid. Barcelona are back, ready to rule again.