A magnificent playing career ended last night, not in triumph, with silverware to hoist and champagne stinging his eyes, but instead with head bowed and an almost apologetic wave to the stands. Edwin van der Sar, at 40 years 211 days the oldest man to feature in a European Cup final, has bidden farewell to professional football. He would have envisaged this so very differently, but the romance was to be Barcelona's alone.

This loss should not detract from the Dutchman's achievements, but it still felt a sadly inappropriate way to depart. In time Van der Sar may reflect on eight league titles, two European Cups and a Uefa Cup, or the record 130 caps he secured for Holland. But, for now, the memory will be of Lionel Messi and David Villa curling shots agonisingly out of his reach. The veteran will have recognised the gulf that gaped between these sides, although that will not temper the disappointment.

Even for a player walking away from a 20-year career in the game, with this his fifth appearance on this stage, watching Barcelona probe, tease and torment as they did must have felt like an education. For this to have been a glorious hurrah, Van der Sar had always been reliant on those in front of him to disrupt Barcelona's rhythm. His centre-halves, like the team's midfield shield, had needed to ally aggression with efficiency in their smothering of the Catalans' intent, their energies fixed upon stifling Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta at source.

There had been tapped fists with each of the rearguard in the moments just before kick-off; the goalkeeper even jogging across the pitch to touch hands with Patrice Evra. Yet the blur of rat-a-tat passes duly bypassed those clad in white regardless. Ryan Giggs, at 37, laboured in pursuit of the ball. Michael Carrick gasped at the sheer fluidity of Barça's movement. United may have retired at the interval level but they had escaped; their respite would be brief.

Van der Sar had been static as Pedro Rodríguez sidefooted wide from Xavi's centre early on. He was wrong-footed again before the half-hour mark as Pedro was more accurate, although the goalkeeper had actually been left exposed, his defenders hypnotised by Xavi. The captain's pass to liberate Pedro was still stunning, but United's shape had melted away.

Van der Sar had long since recognised this season as a chance to bow out at the top. His form has been consistently outstanding, only the fading memory of an error against West Brom bucking that trend. Yet this was another step up, a contest in which United could never impose any authority. Overwhelmed as they were, Van der Sar could not stave off Barcelona alone.

The save he conjured from Daniel Alves, spreading himself to deflect the Brazilian's drive away, was a reminder both of his reactions but also how stretched his team-mates were at times. Within moments, he was diving forlornly as Evra dawdled and Messi fizzed his first goal on English soil into the corner. There was so much bite and accuracy in the finish that surely all-comers would have been beaten.

There were smart saves to thwart Messi again, and Xavi from distance, but the tide poured at him and Villa's third cast United adrift. Van der Sar might once have signed for Barcelona, back at the turn of the decade when he was still struggling to prove his pedigree at Juventus and with his mentor, Louis van Gaal, installed at the Camp Nou. In others, that might have been cause for regret. Yet, if the immediate aftermath of this defeat, the Dutchman will recognise his career has actually been blessed.