Of all the errors Sir Alex Ferguson made in the 2009 final, few were greater than deploying Wayne Rooney on the left wing. Not only was the forward ineffective out there but he failed to help curb Barcelona's attacking threats from full-back. On Saturday, the principal figure in that area was Dani Alves, who is renowned for spending more time in the opposition's half than his own and adds greatly to the relentless nature of his team's play. This time, Park Ji-sung was stationed wide left and it was felt he could not only pin back Alves, but also exploit the Brazilian's defensive frailties. But Park was overwhelmed, allowing Alves to run free and add to the state of siege United found themselves under during the second half.
When a player's skills are as captivating as Lionel Messi's it is perhaps futile trying to come up with a plan to stop him; but what is certain is that the forward operates best when allowed time and space between the opposition's back line and midfield. As he dropped into that area Rio Ferdinand needed to go with him, using his pace and agility to harass the Argentinian whenever he was in possession and force him away from goal. It would have been a brave move but given Barcelona are not prone to playing balls over the top, it would not have badly exposed United's defence. Ferdinand, though, was passive, allowing Messi, as he had done in Rome, to score the goal that put United on the rack. Unsurprisingly, he struck from just outside the area.
He may be the least heralded of Barcelona's midfield trio but Sergio Busquets has a key part to play in the functioning of the side, picking up possession from deep and, with simple regularity, passing it on to the more creative Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. Keeping him quiet would have disrupted Barcelona's rhythm from the outset, but no one in United's central area, whether Rooney, Ryan Giggs or Michael Carrick, did so to a sufficient degree, allowing a player who has demonstrated he can become irritated if put under pressure to dictate proceedings. He played a small role in Barcelona's first goal and a key one in their third, winning the ball and laying it off to David Villa to bury United's hopes.
There are many clubs, at home and abroad, who can testify to United's refusal to roll over and die. Under Ferguson they have developed a well-earned reputation for coming from behind, so much so that it is often said the worst thing opponents can do is take the lead against this team; it just makes them angrier. But twice now in two years these men of resolute spirit have been crushed by Barcelona, losing not only the tactical battle but also the psychological one. United never looked like recovering after going behind to Samuel Eto'o's opening goal in the 2009 final and, despite cancelling out Pedro's 27th‑minute strike on Saturday through Rooney, did not appear capable of repeating the feat once Messi made it 2-1. A complex appears to have formed in Rome and, after Wembley, may be difficult to shift.
It is accepted that this is not a vintage United side and nowhere is the relative lack of quality more apparent than in midfield. The 1999 treble winners were imperious in that area but, more than a decade on, Barcelona's own central powers exposed those charged with filling the void left by Roy Keane, David Beckham and, in their peak years, Paul Scholes and Giggs. After Rome, and following Cristiano Ronaldo's departure to Real Madrid, Ferguson needed to invest, but instead he stuck by the likes of Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and the ageing Scholes and Giggs. Wembley showed the folly of that decision as Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta yet again reigned supreme.