Barcelona are on their way to Wembley. At the end of Spain’s fourth clasico in 18 days, Catalonia erupted with pleasure at the joyous fact that Barca have reached their third Champions League final in six years.
They won the first two and given that Wembley was the scene of the club’s first European Cup in 1992, and that manager Pep Guardiola was part of that dreamy team assembled by Johan Cruyff, Barcelona will relish London on May 28th.
After last week’s spite-filled first leg in the Bernabeu, this was an altogether calmer encounter. Until afterwards, that is, when Real Madrid players led by Cristiano Ronaldo lined up to re-state Jose Mourinho’s conspiracy theories.
‘Barcelona are a very difficult team to beat because they get outside help,’ said Ronaldo.
‘The difference between the two teams was the referee,” added Xabi Alonso.
Mourinho’s assistant Aitor Karanka also chipped in. ‘Mourinho was right,’ he said. ‘He said that it would be impossible for us to go through. Tonight proved that it was impossible and 100 million people saw it.’
There were other claims long into the night. It felt orchestrated and churlish. This was not a dirty game, it was the first of the season’s five clasicos in which Real did not have a player sent off.
As Madrid moaned, Barca players danced. In a memorable scene just after the final whistle a circle of them tossed Eric Abidal in the air. The Frenchman was diagnosed with a tumor less than two months ago but his recovery has been of near Lazarus proportions. He was introduced by Guardiola as a 90th minute substitute.
These were images Catalans will treasure. The football world will also have breathed a sigh of relief. Although there was enough niggle for there to be six bookings – 5-1 to Real Madrid – referee Franck De Bleeckere kept a lid on the tension by showing restraint.
The players participated too – in the main – and while there was a pitch intruder just after half-time and a flare thrown from Barcelona seats into the travelling fans’ area, Uefa will have a shorter list to deal with than last week.
Whether it was the hullabaloo that met the angst-ridden first leg, or that Real had to chase the match, this was a far better football occasion. There was no ‘kettling’ of the referee.
Barcelona may also point out that the absence of malice in the shape of Mourinho should not be overlooked. Banned from the visitors’ dugout after the raucous first leg, Mourinho failed to get off the Real team bus and was said to be watching on TV in his hotel room. It was a gesture he made at Chelsea during a previous Uefa ban six years ago.
From there Mourinho saw his team play with considerably more adventure and personality than seven days earlier.
Led admirably by Alonso and Ronaldo on the pitch, Real contributed to a match that was open from the first minute. They also had Iker Casillas to thank as Barcelona gradually overcame their historic opponents midway through the first half and threatened to submerge them.
Lionel Messi was suddenly in his element then having been quiet by his noisy standards. Still just 23, the magical Argentine was a driving presence hell-bent on scoring his 53rd goal of the season. Eleven of Real’s 29 Madrid fouls were on Messi.
Casillas thwarted his scoring ambition but one of the many attractions of this Barca side is that they have diamonds everywhere. Andres Iniesta’s art was missing in Madrid last week but when he speared a superb diagonal pass to Pedro in the 54th minute, Barca had their lead.
Pedro, one of those who causes consternation with his occasional acting, controlled the pass equally skilfully and struck it beyond Casillas. Even Mourinho would be prepared to acknowledge this was a ‘clean’ goal in more than one way.
To their credit Real showed character of the sporting sort after that. Needing to score first to put their hosts on edge, Gonzalo Higuain had a ‘goal’ disallowed two minutes into the second half – which provoked Ronaldo’s “outside help” statement. Yet Ronaldo threw himself to the turf in the build-up.
So Pedro’s goal made it 3-0 on aggregate but nine minutes after it, Angel Di Maria, a willing worker all night, smacked the post and Marcelo was there to bounce in the rebound.
With over 25 minutes left a quick second would have changed the atmosphere. But Madrid never really came close to that and Mourinho – and his bosses – will surely reflect that had they displayed the same attacking conviction in their own stadium they could be at Wembley.
Instead it is Barca, probably to face Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson was expected here and he will have seen familiar talents. Guardiola’s side defeated United 2-0 in Rome three years ago and seven of their starting XI from then were on show.
Barcelona await United or Schalke in the Champions League final at Wembley after finishing the job against bitter rivals Real Madrid.
The tie on the night finished 1-1, enough to send Pep Guardiola’s side through 3-1 on aggregate following their first-leg triumph at the Bernabeu.
In a far better advert for Spanish football, there was a controversial moment when Gonzalo Higuain had a goal ruled out for a foul when Cristiano Ronaldo tumbled into Javier Mascherano. Soon afterwards, a wonderful pass by Andres Iniesta split the Real defence and Pedro calmly fired home to ease any nerves for the Catalan giants. But Real made a fight of things with Marcelo levelling after Angel di Maria’s unselfish reaction to his original shot coming back off a post.
Guardiola rejected Madrid’s conspiracy claims once again. He said: ‘It has been a tough 20 days and we have played the richest team in the world many times. The referee may have had an influence but we were very good in the second match.’ Whatever happened to dignity in defeat?
Of the return to Wembley, he happily added: ‘Football’s coming home.’
Barca will compete in the showpiece event on May 28 with the Red Devils looking to set up a repeat of the 2009 final in Rome.
Copyright 2011 by Daily Mail, The Sun & manutd.com