Barcelona completed the circle on 28 May 2011.
Wembley again, back where it all began.
The perfect expression of a team that some considered the finest there has been and at the perfect location too.
When Barcelona defeated Manchester United 3-1 in London to win their second European Cup in three years under Pep Guardiola, and their third in six, Sir Alex Ferguson called the Catalans the best team he had ever faced.
“No one,” he said, “has ever given us a hiding like that.” But it was about more than just the performance; it was about the symmetry and symbolism too.
At the end of match, Gerard Piqu undertook a now familiar ritual, borrowed from basketball, and took a pair of scissors to the goal, carrying off the net with him.
Another souvenir to take back to Spain.
When the old Wembley closed down, Barcelona had sent Pablo Ornaque, a football curator, to the auction.
He bought items from the old stadium including goalposts, bench, turnstiles and turf, loading them on to a truck and taking them home.
Religious relics from a spiritual home.
For Barcelona, nowhere has the significance of Wembley.
It was there in 1992 they won their first European Cup, when the Dream Team defeated Sampdoria 1-0 thanks to Ronald Koeman’s extra-time free-kick.
For Bar a, “Wembley” always meant 1992, their rebirth.
Now, it also means 2011, their zenith.
When Barcelona prepared for the 2010 semi-final, fans relished the prospect of winning at Real Madrid’s ground but Xavi Hern ndez was more seduced by the following season’s final in London.
Aged 12, he had cried because his parents would not let him travel to the 92 final.
As Pep Guardiola put it: “It all starts with the Dream Team we’re all trying to emulate them.” Johan Cruyff’s team were something to aspire to, an idealised image of perfection always just out of reach.
Yet this Barcelona surpassed them.
They too defeated Real Madrid 5-0, they too set new standards and insisted on the importance of style as well as substance, they too won the European Cup.
And not just once, but twice.
Or should that read “three times”? Barcelona won the European Cup in 2006 with a project that consciously sought to follow Cruyff, with Frank Rijkaard the coach, and that got off the ground with the arrival of first Ronaldinho and then Samuel Eto’o.
That side was the conceptual basis of what came next but there was significant change and the line of continuity is an intermittent one: of the starting XI in 2006, only three began the final in 2009: Carles Puyol, V ctor Vald’s and Samuel Eto’o.
By 2011, Eto’o had gone.
In 2006, Xavi and Andr’s Iniesta began on the bench, while Lionel Messi was injured.
Rijkaard was followed by Guardiola.
As one of Guardiola’s closest friends put it, here was a man who had “suckled at the teat of Cruyff”.
The metronome at the heart of the Dream Team, he had spent the night before the final in 1992 arguing with Andoni Zubizarreta about how many steps up it was to get the trophy, and he was committed to Cruyff’s approach.
He later summed up that approach as a manager, with simplicity and in English: “I get the ball, I pass the ball, I get the ball, I pass the ball, I get the ball, I pass the ball ” There may never have been a team that got and passed the ball like that Barcelona side.
Ferguson had warned before the 2009 final of the risk that “Xavi and Iniesta get you on that carousel”.
Warning was one thing, stopping them was another.
After the 2011 final, he said: “They mesmerise you with their passing.” Possession was everything, control an obsession.
Few sides have been so clear in their footballing identity, almost cult-like in their commitment to a philosophy.
The very fact that they called it a “philosophy” seemed somehow telling, a kind of footballing fundamentalism.
And then, of course, there was Messi.
Now Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer and holder of four consecutive Ballon d’Or awards at the age of only 25, the European Cup’s top scorer for four seasons in a row, goalscorer in both the 2009 and 2011 finals, man of the match in both games, it no longer seems absurd to ask if he may be the best player of all time.
Barcelona won a unique treble in Guardiola’s first season.
That was joined by the Spanish and European Super Cups and the Club World Cup.
Six trophies out of six.
In 2010 they won the league again, losing the Champions League semi-final to Jos Mourinho’s Internazionale after a last-minute goal was wrongly ruled out for handball and after a two-day coach journey to the first leg, caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption.
In 2011, they won the La Liga and Champions League double.
They have reached the past six European Cup semi-finals, a feat never before matched.
No team has defended the Champions League since the change in format.
Barcelona’s run is as close to dominance as has been seen.
Barcelona fans, inevitably, draw comparisons between this era and the first five years of the competition when Madrid won it every season.
Until Real’s 1998 triumph, Barcelona fans always joked, with a touch of bitterness, that their rivals had only ever won it in black and white.
Whether this is the greater achievement is debatable; they may not even be comparable.
Last week Mourinho called Barcelona the best side in the world over the last 20 or 30 years.
As usual, he had ulterior motives but many have agreed, the sense that this was something truly historic enhanced by the Spanish national team: European champions, World Cup winners and European champions again with a team in which much of the idea and personnel comes from Barcelona.
Each year, for five consecutive years, Xavi and Iniesta won the most important tournament in the world.
Of Spain’s starting XI in South Africa, six were Barcelona players while a seventh, David Villa, was just about to join.
His first season would end in triumph, with a gorgeous curler beating Edwin van der Sar.
But if it all seems just too easy, Barcelona’s competitive edge, so often overlooked, should not be ignored.
The 2010-11 season had been difficult the defender Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova, the assistant coach, had suffered cancer; there had been four cl sicos in 18 days, a fortnight that should have been joyous but was mostly joyless.
Barcelona had won the league, lost the Copa del Rey final in extra time and beat Madrid in the Champions League, amid accusations and acrimony.
In the midst of it all, Guardiola even turned on Mourinho with that famous ” puto amo ” moment.
The final could not have felt more different.
“They play the right way,” Ferguson said afterwards.
There was only admiration for what he had witnessed.
As Kevin McCarra put it on these pages: “Barcelona slice teams to pieces, but at least they are generous with the anaesthetic”; they killed United softly, picking them apart, playing them to death.
They had been good in 2009 but they were better two years later.
Somehow purer, too; exactly as they would have wanted it.
In 2009, Barcelona’s starting lineup included Thierry Henry and Eto’o, plus Yaya Tour ; in a year, 2010, Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been and gone.
Their departures can still be questioned but in 2011 the decision appeared vindicated.
This was everything Barcelona aspired to be: the Bar a ballboy as coach, Cruyffist and Catalan; seven youth-teamers in the starting XI, as there had been two years earlier; Messi, unstoppable as a false No9, and he, Villa and Pedro all scoring; Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets back on that carousel, getting the ball and passing the ball, enjoying almost 70% of possession, ridiculous in a final; and all that at Wembley.
Then they climbed those steps and Abidal lifted the European Cup.
If Wolves fans think their recent relegation to League One was a crushing disappointment, they can at least console themselves with the knowledge that their team has endured worse agonies.
Having dropped down to English football’s fourth tier on the back of three successive relegations, the West Midlands club had survived a winding-up order 10 months previously and were attempting to begin the gradual ascent back towards former glories.
They were doing so via a new wheeze called the play-offs, which had been adopted to increase competition and maintain fan interest by giving more clubs a chance of winning promotion towards the end of the season.
Victory would prove a fitting end to one of the most eventful season’s in the club’s history.
The format for the play-offs was different to that which we’re used today, contested as they were by the teams which finished fourth, fifth and sixth in the old Fourth Division, along with one team from the league above.
In this case, Bolton Wanderers had battled unsuccessfully to retain their Third Division status, going out to Aldershot in the semi-finals.
In the other match-up, Wolves had eliminated Colchester United, setting up the first play-off final in the history of English football, to be played over two legs at the Recreation Ground and Molineux (one-off finals at Wembley were not introduced until 1990).
Despite their recent financial woes Wolves went into the final as favourites, having finished nine points clear of Aldershot in the league table and by dint of the fact they were well, the once mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Besides, they’d already seen off the Shots twice that season: 3-0 at home and 2-1 away.
Beating them over two legs was surely only a formality.
What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, as it happened.
On a rain-sodden pitch in front of 5,069 fans (almost half of them supporting the men in Old Gold) at the Recreation Ground, Wolves contrived to lose the first leg 2-0, going down to goals from Ian McDonald and Bobby Barnes.
Even with two sides of Molineux out of commission for the second leg three days later (the North Bank and Waterloo Road Stand had been closed down due to new safety laws implemented following the Bradford City stadium fire in 1985), many of the 19,962 who packed the John Ireland Stand and the South Bank terrace were confident their side, spearheaded by a young striker named Steve Bull who would go on to score more than 300 goals for the club, could overturn the first-leg deficit.
Their optimism proved misguided when Barnes struck his second of the tie and the only goal of the game to give Aldershot a 3-0 aggregate win, ensuring Wolves fans became the first in the country to endure the horrors of a play-off final defeat.
Many of them didn’t take it too well and, of the 42 arrests made in violent post-match scenes, 41 of those who had their collars felt were home fans.
In an intriguing and sad footnote, the day ended badly for three Aldershot players, who were hospitalised on their way home when the car driven by centre-half Darren Anderson crashed into a tree.
Anderson received stitches to a head wound, striker Glen Burvill broke an arm and playmaker Giorgio Mazzon needed surgery on internal injuries.
The precedent for decades of subsequent play-off drama had been set.
Sunday 30 May 1999.
A second-place finish in the top flight and an FA Cup final defeat were the kind of “failures” beyond the wildest dreams of long-suffering Manchester City fans.
A nationwide laughing stock and punchline, their club had reached its lowest ebb the previous season, becoming only the second ever European trophy winners to be relegated to their country’s third tier.
In a win-or-bust one-off Wembley showpiece to escape from what is these days known as League One, City seemed destined to suffer further embarrassment.
Finding themselves 2-0 down in the final minute of a match that had been scoreless until Gillingham strikers Carl Asaba and Robert Taylor put their side two up inside the final 10 minutes, City midfielder Kevin Horlock’s low, left-footed drive through a thicket of legs from the edge of the penalty area looked to be little more than consolatory.
But deep into injury-time, City won a throw-in inside their own half, which Ian Bishop hurriedly played back to Gerard Wiekens.
Opting to go long and agricultural in a style which would surely have pleased the then Gillingham manager Tony Pulis had he not been so fraught with tension the Dutchman thumped the ball forward, where Gareth Taylor got the crucial flick-on and the ball fell to Horlock with his back to goal.
He shuffled it sideways to Shaun Goater, but the Bermudan’s shot from outside the area was blocked by a desperate lunge before it had even left his boot.
The ball, which could have gone anywhere, broke to Paul Dickov in the penalty area and the scurrying, snarly Scotsman made no mistake.
When his equaliser screamed past Vince Bartram Gillingham goalkeeper and best man at Dickov’s wedding in to the roof of the net, the clock read 94:09.
Even with Manchester City involved, only one team was going to win the ensuing penalty shoot-out, although Dickov did put City fans through the wringer one more time by missing his spot-kick.
Despite Sergio Ag ero’s Premier League-winning heroics of last year, the Scot’s equaliser remains the most important in Manchester City’s history.
It finished 4-4 after extra-time, Charlton won 7-6 on penalties and Mickey Gray took arguably the worst spot-kick in play-off history to end arguably the most thrilling football match in Wembley history.
The former Sunderland and England full-back magnanimously talked us through his shame in great detail a couple of years ago, so feel free to click on the link to revisit the grisly details.
In an intriguing addendum 15 years on, one of Gray’s team-mates who scored in normal time but had been substituted and was therefore unavailable to take a penalty that afternoon is about to contest another play-off final with a berth in the Premier League up for grabs.
He plays for Crystal Palace, is a sprightly 39 years old and his name is Kevin Phillips.
Having suffered heartbreak the previous season when Steve Claridge shinned home from 20 yards in the final minute of extra-time to catapult Leicester City into the top flight at their expense, Crystal Palace supporters could have been forgiven for hiding under their beds rather than risk another trip to Wembley and the accompanying prospect of identical trauma 364 days later.
Incredibly, the play-off final was decided by another a last-minute mugging but this time it was Palace who prevailed, courtesy of a splendid individual effort from their skipper and player of the season, David Hopkin.
With less than one of the regulation 90 minutes remaining Palace won a corner, which Sheffield United defender Carl Tiler cleared from the penalty area with a header that, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, could and should have been meatier.
Chasing to pick up the ball a couple of yards outside the box in the left channel, Hopkin flicked the ball into position with a wave of his left foot, before settling himself and curling a quite exquisite and unstoppable right-footed shot that was still rising as it sailed past the desperate dive of Sheffield United goalkeeper Simon Treacy into the top right-hand corner.
It was the most dramatic intervention by a flame-haired Scotsman since Groundskeeper Willie saved Bart’s life by beating up a wolf on the Simpsons.
“Now the team knew they were meeting Tranmere in the play-offs.
They were over two legs, home and away.
If they beat them it was on to Wembley and the chance of promotion.
I had started out wanting to question football and the prominence we give it, but from now on the glamour and the sheer spectacle of the game took over and swept the film along with it.” When documentary-maker Carl Ross was granted behind-the-scenes access to film That’s Football, a season in the life of second tier side Swindon Town throughout the 1992-93 season, he hit paydirt.
What he’d originally intended to be one quasi-jaded fan’s examination into football’s role in the cosmic scheme of things ended up being a fascinating and occasionally foul-mouthed warts-and-all diary of the Wiltshire side’s white-knuckle ride into the Premier League.
Three seasons previously they’d won promotion, only to have it snatched away from them as punishment for their part in a financial scandal.
Having seen off Tranmere over two legs in the semi-finals, Swindon Town’s preparations for the Wembley showpiece against Leicester City were marred by newspaper speculation linking their player-manager Glenn Hoddle and his No2 John Gorman with a move to Chelsea.
But in yet another cracking showpiece, the Robins went 3-0 up, with Hoddle scoring the first courtesy of a beautifully placed shot from outside the penalty area, only for Leicester to launch a stunning comeback and pull level with goals from Julian Joachim, Steve Walsh and Steve Thompson.
Six minutes from time, Swindon secured promotion courtesy of a penalty, won controversially by substitute Steve White as he tried to latch on to a splendidly weighted Hoddle pass from midfield and converted by left-back Paul Bodin.
For Leicester City, it was heartbreaking; the second consecutive play-off final they’d lost to a controversial late penalty and their sixth defeat in as many trips to Wembley.
Like the pre-final build-up, Swindon’s celebrations were again tempered by an increasingly loud and frenzied media buzz linking Hoddle with a move to Chelsea.
It proved accurate and a few days after promotion had been secured, he parted company with Town, who appointed his good friend Gorman as their new manager.
“Glenn left Swindon and John left Glenn,” intoned Ross shortly before the closing credits rolled in his documentary.
“As of now, a year later, Swindon have been relegated from the Premier League.” Ah, Preston.
Along the flat coastal plain of Fylde and the banks of the Ribble they speak of little else.
From the tree-tops of the Forest of Bowland and the summit of Beacon Fell, they bellow it: no other team in England has as abject a history of play-off failure as Preston North End from Deepdale.
In no fewer than eight attempts to emerge from assorted divisions through these steely end-of-season tests of nerve and resolve, the Lilywhites have proved decidedly lily-livered, having failed to achieve promotion a single time.
They’ve gone out at the semi-final stage on five occasions and lost three finals.
Which is not to say that on several occasions they just weren’t good enough, but let’s not ruin the narrative with anything so dreary as facts here.
In the the pantheon of play-off bottlers, Preston remain peerless.
Alan Pardew’s Newcastle United narrowly avoided relegation after finishing fifth in the previous Premier League season.
Photograph: Ian Macnicol/AFP/Getty Images Alan Pardew has been warned his job will be under threat should Newcastle United fail to achieve at least a top-10 finish next season.
Derek Llambias, the managing director, has made it clear that Pardew requires a strong start to the new campaign to eliminate doubts about his suitability that emerged during Newcastle’s recent relegation skirmish.
“We are now entirely focused on the forthcoming campaign with the expectation of at least a top-10 finish in the Premier League,” said Llambias, who dismissed suggestions that he and Mike Ashley, the club’s owner, considered sacking Pardew who, this time last year, steered Newcastle to fifth place but now has to prove himself all over again during a meeting with the manager in London on Wednesday.
“Everyone was disappointed to finish where we did last season, particularly on the back of such a fantastic year prior to that,” said Llambias.
“Our discussions on Wednesday were very constructive and we pinpointed a number of factors that contributed to a season which fell below expectations.
“There has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks but our desire, as we announced back in September when Pardew signed an eight-year contract is to bring long-term stability to this club.
It’s up to us all now to work closely as a team to ensure next season sees us competing in the top half of the table again.” Although it appears that Ashley is not prepared to back Pardew’s desire to bring Andy Carroll back to Tyneside, Graham Carr, Newcastle’s influential chief scout, is expected to be busy this summer.
It is thought Carr will concentrate on identifying young talent in the Netherlands and Belgium as well as France, where the St Etienne striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is believed to loom large on the club’s shopping list.
Carr, though, will also be hunting for centre-halves after it emerged that San Lorenzo are poised to make another attempt to take Fabricio Coloccini, Newcastle’s homesick captain, back to his native Argentina.
Scottish clubs have been discussing merger plans at Hampden Park.
Sky Bet Football Betting Retrieving latest Sky Bet odds Football Betting 10 Free Bet Irn-Bru First Division clubs may stage a breakaway to join the Scottish Premier League after a split over merger plans.
Only 16 of 30 clubs backed reconstruction plans put forward by the Scottish Football League and First Division teams may instead press on with proposals to create a second-tier of the SPL.
First Division clubs immediately moved to another room inside Hampden to weigh up their options after failing to reach an agreement at the SFL’s annual general meeting.
Speaking on behalf of the First Division clubs, Hamilton chairman Les Gray said: “The whole group is disappointed that the outcome of the meeting resulted in a 16-13 vote.
“Everybody has worked incredibly hard to get it over the line but it has not been enough and nearly half of the SFL clubs have decided it is not for them.
“The next step for us is to take a few days to mull over it and look at all the other alternatives – you know what they are.
“We will do what is right for our clubs.” The SFL has planned a formal vote on the matter on June 10, but they need the backing of six more clubs before the changes can be introduced in time for next season.
Rangers were denied a vote as they are only an associate member after joining last summer.
SFL chief executive David Longmuir said: “We are now going to move to a vote on June 10 which is the appropriate lead time that we need to as one of our resolutions will have to be to look to wind up the organisation.
“It was a healthy discussion as usual.
It was an indication today to see how clubs were feeling about the changed agenda and 16 clubs were in favour of the package of change as it currently stands and 13 were not ready to agree to it.
“So the 14-day lead time at least gives the clubs the chance to contemplate the due diligence process.
And that will give them the ability to decide on June 10.”
Scott Boyd: New contract for Ross County defender Sky Bet Football Betting Retrieving latest Sky Bet odds Football Betting 10 Free Bet Ross County defender Scott Boyd has signed a new contract to make him the club’s longest-serving player.
The 26-year-old centre-back is nearing his 200th appearance for County and took over from Paul Lawson as the most loyal servant among the playing staff when the midfielder left for Motherwell earlier this week.
Boyd formed a solid partnership in the heart of the defence with Grant Munro for the majority of the season to help County finish fifth in their debut Clydesdale Bank Premier League campaign.
Manager Derek Adams told the club’s official website: “I am delighted Scott has decided to stay with us next season as he has been a valuable player over the past six years.
“He joined Ross County when we were in the Second Division and now has a collection of medals to his name.”
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