A measure of Barcelona's brilliance is that many Manchester United supporters left Wembley feeling guilty pleasure. They applauded their own team as their players stepped through the rubble of this defeat but also tucked away the memories of the night they saw Lionel Messi and Xavi win a European Cup with mesmerising dexterity.
Bitterness was absent, grief inappropriate. There was the odd grumble about the 37-year-old Ryan Giggs being picked in central midfield and a few isolated laments about Darren Fletcher being left on the bench. But on an inspiring night for football United could have been pretty much anyone. No side could have coped with the scintillating rhythms of Barcelona's passing or the virtuosity of Messi, who is a genre all by himself.
Rondo, rondo. Round, round. Two words to haunt United as Europe's elite search for an answer to the crushing problem that is Barcelona, with their relentless circulation of the ball, topped off by the genius of Messi.
Football is a sport with a mangled attention span. Judgments lurch from triumph to disaster and from praise to recrimination. Normally there would be a cascade of analysis questioning United's 19th English title win and questioning the direction the club is moving in. But to land those cheap shots would be to ignore Barcelona's quality.
United are probably the second- or third-best team in Europe, vying with Real Madrid. The gulf between first and second is vast. In this game United looked like workmanlike Premier League champions with a slightly wooden midfield and less firepower than when Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez were in the side who lost to Barcelona in Rome two years ago.
United had their limitations exposed, no question, but only in the context of a special phase in the game's history. Barcelona have engineered an evolutionary leap, adding defensive rigour to the fantasy element first instilled by the dream teams of Johan Cruyff. Like Real Madrid, Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and the rest, United now face the daunting challenge of raising their game somewhere closer to Barcelona levels.
Assuming Dimitar Berbatov's omission from team and bench was indicative of a permanent rift, United will need a world‑class striker to support Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández, who found this a test too far at the end of his first English campaign. Edwin van der Sar's retirement is already in hand with the recruitment of David de Gea. Midfield is where weakness is most evident. In a world of fantasy recruitment they would now send a limo to Spurs for Luka Modric and a plane to Inter for Wesley Sneijder to solve their creativity deficit.
United soaked up all the eulogies about Barcelona and then responded the way a great club ought to: not with caution, or containment, but with a restatement of the spirit that first lifted them to the European title on this ground in 1968, when Best and Charlton were in their prime. Yet it was a battle for survival all night.
To pick Wayne Rooney and Hernández in the same starting line-up advertised the message that United were not here to cringe behind a wall. Their quest to win a fourth European title would not be shaped by deference.
A top professional would be slow to admit this, but playing against Barcelona can't be much fun, such is the constant chasing, the anxiety, the impossibility of halting Messi when he is on one of his Velcro-booted runs.
They conceded a goal to Pedro Rodríguez on 27 minutes and looked to be in line for a hiding yet left the field for the interval on level terms after Rooney had finished off a sweet move.
Conservative five-man midfield? Not tonight, thank you. Instead Rooney started in his best position, at No10, linking the midfield four with the buzzy, hungry Hernández, who must have seen Javier Mascherano's name on the Barça team-sheet at centre-back and sniffed blood.
From the first whistle Ferguson's men were on the hustle, racing into the contact areas to pester and disrupt. It took two minutes for Sergio Busquets, Barça's chief thespian, to adopt the prone position and rub part of his head. Even Messi looked momentarily disorientated by United's macho energy.
Then normal service resumed. Barcelona know how to survive early provocation. Xavi was omnipresent again, popping up in every frame, working his way round midfield areas where Giggs was starting to look his age. From the left, Park Ji-sung did his best to jostle and harry but found the limits of his eagerness as Barça flicked and stroked the ball away from him.
The night brought a brutal reckoning for Berbatov, the team's leading scorer in the Premier League with 21, but unable here even to earn a place among the replacements. "It's a heartache, and to make that decision is not easy," Ferguson said, effectively consigning Berbatov's Old Trafford career to history. Rooney, 25, and Hernández, 22, are a partnership for the next United era. They are, though, a comparatively new combination.
Hernández did his best to "stretch the play" but most of the action was going on in the golden triangle drawn by Messi, Iniesta and Xavi. After the interval Ferguson asked Rooney to present more of an attacking threat and work closer to Hernández. Soon, though, we were observing at the home of English football an inescapable truth about this Barcelona side. You can do what you like in your own world but you will not stop Messi on one of his good days.
Eight minutes into the second period Messi collected the ball on the left-hand side of United's area and began to slip inside. Patrice Evra, the United full-back, spectated, or "got on the carousel", to use Ferguson's colourful description of his team's failings in Rome. Messi lashed a left-foot shot past Van der Sar and then David Villa closed the deal with a curling finish on 69 minutes.
By now England's representatives were playing relatively characterless Premier League football against a side raised to the sublime by Messi. The only thing United went home with was a target to aim at. A high one, up in the ether.