Barcelona slice teams to pieces, but at least they are generous with the anaesthetic. Sir Alex Ferguson felt no pain as the match ended. He did not flinch when a runners-up medal was placed round his neck. Any suffering had ended long before as he understood that Manchester United had no cause to reproach themselves merely for being out of their depth.
Two years ago, the Old Trafford side had also lost to Barcelona in the final. Since that evening in Rome, Ferguson had been adamant that his line-up fell below its true standard then. Few outsiders were persuaded and people will appreciate that Pep Guardiola's side turned United into an irrelevance at Wembley. This time, Ferguson was frank. Late on Saturday night, the 69-year-old implied that he and the rest of the rivals will have to weather Barcelona's storm of excellence until it blows itself out.
Despite the managerial acumen that again took United to the Premier League title, they still need a higher calibre of performer. Some whose excellence is above debate have grown old. No one, for instance, was tempted to call the 37‑year‑old Ryan Giggs ageless in this match with Barcelona. He had suffered as well in the 2009 final. The Welshman can find energy in games where United hog possession, but exhaustion crashes down on players running in futile pursuit of the ball.
From the quarter-finals onwards Barcelona have scored eight of their dozen goals in the second half. All that lovely passing is also a sort of attrition and United, like their predecessors, were incapable of resisting it for an entire game. It is sobering to think that the side were outclassed even though their instructions had some merit.
One of the ways in which Barcelona unnerve opponents is to contradict convention and often insist on making their way through the most congested part of the field, straight down the middle. United, appreciating that, had Park Ji‑sung and Antonio Valencia coming off the wings to crowd the centre of the pitch. If the approach worked it did so merely for a limited time. After such a fixture, the mind turns to a reshaping of the Old Trafford squad that was inevitable regardless of the outcome.
Paul Scholes, brought on for 14 minutes at Wembley, must be considering retirement and Giggs's continuing impact on the domestic scene is not to be taken for granted. The refashioning of the squad is an irrelevance in the context of Barcelona's display at Wembley. Where can Ferguson or anyone else come up with counterparts to Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi?
United would surely covet Sergio Busquets as well. The 22‑year‑old was given his key role by Guardiola and the manager, from an early stage, preferred him as the nominally defensive midfielder. That decision was a factor in the sale of Yaya Touré to Manchester City. Busquets came to this final as the man who had made the most forward passes in the tournament season. He embodies a side as relentless as it is attractive.
The energy was drained from United. There was also pathos in the sight of the 40-year-old Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar proving unable to carry the customary excellence into his last match before retirement. With the score at 1-1, he could not block the shot by Messi in the 54th minute that went home near the centre of the goal.
All the same, there can be no guilty parties when an entire team are outclassed. Pedro's movement had been exquisite as he suddenly put himself into space and, taking Xavi's pass, sent a drive past Van der Sar for the opener after 27 minutes. An ingrained competitiveness was only sufficient to put United level for a while. Wayne Rooney linked with Giggs and finished firmly in the 34th minute.
Even so, the game would most likely have moved beyond the reach of United regardless of Van der Sar's mishap. The third goal was an assertion of Barcelona's excellence. David Villa was magisterial after 69 minutes when bending the ball into the top corner. By then, Guardiola's men had attained a superiority that saw a final converted into an exhibition.
There is a genteel brutality to Barcelona. They introduce opponents to exhaustion and despair. United had no prospect of a comeback when they were being compelled to keep chasing wraith-like tormentors. A topic such as the restriction of Carles Puyol, the club captain who has been affected by injury, to five minutes as a substitute, was not even worth pondering when United were so often incapable of making trouble.
Barcelona turned the final into an event shaped solely by their wishes. The left-back Eric Abidal, who had surgery in March for a tumour on his liver, coasted through before having the honour of raising the trophy. It was a moving sight that also emphasised the manner in which Barcelona had presided over virtually everything that happened at Wembley.