Is the 2009 Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United one of the most important games in football history?
Gary Neville, United’s captain at the time, watched the match from the stands due to concerns over his fitness.
Speaking nine years later on The Gary Neville Podcast, the former England international explained why this particular game ‘changed football in terms of how we think of it
First of all, let’s cast our minds back to the final.
Barcelona were at the end of their first season under Pep Guardiola and had already won La Liga and the Copa del Rey.
But they were facing a strong Man Utd side who, let’s not forget, were the reigning European champions at the time. The Red Devils even defeated Barça en route to lifting the Champions League trophy one year earlier.
However, Guardiola’s impact on the Catalan club was both immediate and seismic. Sir Alex Ferguson was under no illusions that his team faced a difficult task in Rome.
United started the match well, with Cristiano Ronaldo threatening to score on two occasions.
But by the 10th minute, Ferguson’s men found themselves a goal down as Samuel Eto’o steered the ball past Edwin van der Sar.
Barcelona then dominated large part of the match and effectively killed the game off with 20 minutes left on the clock when Lionel Messi rose high to score a rare header.
It was a masterful performance from Guardiola’s Barcelona, who would eventually cement their status as arguably the best club side we’ve ever seen.
Gary Neville: How the 2009 UCL final changed football
Neville was shocked by Guardiola’s tactics early in the match and was convinced Man Utd would win the game.
But it soon became patently clear that Guardiola’s tactics were destroying United.
“It’s a big statement this, I was going to say changed football forever – but it changed football in terms of how we think of it,” Neville said in 2018.
“I remember sitting in the stands, it was Barcelona v Manchester United, and seeing [Gerard] Pique and Yaya Toure, three yards from the touchline, [Victor] Valdes in net and [Sergio] Busquets going to the edge of the box – and Manchester United putting on a high press for about 10-15 minutes, dispossessing Barcelona a couple of times and could have scored.
“They didn’t – and I remember Barcelona kept doing it and I was thinking ‘United are going to do them here’. They’re just going to keep winning the ball off them and they’ll score. They’d beaten them the year before in a very different style of play.
“Pep Guardiola had come in for Frank Rijkaard and it was the first time I’d ever seen centre-backs so deep, so deep, on the touchline almost, and thinking ‘this is madness – this is madness’.
I remember after about 20 minutes the game changing. The United players’ legs started to fade – you could feel it – the Barcelona players were continuing to move the ball from deep positions, they were starting to pick United off, moving the ball through midfield and eventually their legs started to go.
I thought ‘that’s different’ – and the year after was when people started to get used to the Pep Guardiola way of playing. [Javier] Mascherano started the go to centre-back, Pique went even deeper. It then became the very beginning of what would be a great side. [Lionel] Messi moved from being a right winger into a false nine and we saw possession at its greatest level – a team at its greatest level as I’ve ever seen.
The base of that was playing out from the back – and that transformed our thinking forever and what we’ve seen since is centre-backs parking their backsides on the touchline, trying to play their way out.”
Indeed, it’s now common to see other teams trying to emulate what Guardiola has achieved from a tactical perspective with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
And the sight of Barça dismantling Ferguson’s United in the 2009 Champions League final showed what was possible.