Photo by Brad Smith/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
LANDOVER, Md. – Falling to FC Barcelona in May's Champions League final surely still hurts for Manchester United — it's unlikely that sting will fade any time soon. But the Red Devils exacted a small dose of revenge against their European rival Saturday, wrapping up an unbeaten U.S. tour with a 2-1 friendly win over Barcelona in front of 81,807 at FedEx Field.
Michael Owen notched the winner in the 76th minute, just six minutes after Barcelona prodigy Thiago's spectacular strike negated Nani's first-half tally. With the victory, United finished its spell stateside 5-0 with 20 goals scored and three conceded.
"It's important for us to win all games," Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said. "It's been a good tournament for us. We've integrated players well, and some young players have joined us and done well in terms of settling in with players they don't really know. And that's always a good thing."
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola fielded a somewhat experimental squad for his team's first match in the U.S., leaving midfielder Xavi and defenders Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol off a game-day roster that was already missing Copa America participants Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano, Alexis Sanchez and Lionel Messi. Short on defenders, Guardiola slotted natural midfielders Sergio Busquets and Jonathan dos Santos into his back line.
Ferguson also held back several regulars, resting defender Rio Ferdinand, midfielders Michael Carrick and Ji-Sung Park, and forward Dimitar Berbatov.
The absences of Xavi and Messi, however, loomed largest. With Andres Iniesta pulling the strings in midfield and striker David Villa dropping into a withdrawn role at times, Barcelona had no problem dictating possession from beginning to end.
But without two of its three Ballon d'Or finalists, the Catalans struggled to connect on the final ball as centerback Nemanja Vidic anchored a disciplined United back line.
"My first year as a coach, we came [to the U.S.] with everybody," Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola recalled. "Now we arrive without eight, 10 important players. And many players are here and injured. So it's difficult to make a preparation."
United's defensive guile paid off in the 22nd minute when the Red Devils found the opener on a counterattack. Nani timed a perfect run to slide behind the Barcelona defense and latch onto Danny Welbeck's through ball before slotting his shot between goalkeeper Victor Valdes' legs.
It was a meaningful goal heading into the English Premier League campaign for Nani, who found himself behind Antonio Valencia on the outside midfield depth chart at the end of last season. The Portugese winger was United's most dangerous player throughout the match Saturday, creating plenty of trouble for Barcelona left back Eric Abidal.
"I'm always very confident," Nani said. "When I lost my place to Valencia the last three games, two games, it was the manager making decisions. But now I'm feeling very confident heading into next season, and I hope to do my best."
After halftime, Barcelona upped the pressure and finally found net in the 70th minute. Thiago collected the ball 25 yards from goal, took a touch and fired a shot that swerved past a motionless David de Gea into the side netting.
But Owen sealed Barcelona's fate 14 minutes from full time. Teammate Tom Cleverly — called United's best player on the night by Ferguson — pounced on a sloppy Barcelona giveaway at midfield and fed the veteran striker, who chipped Valdes for the winner.
"Of course we want to win, but we played one of the best teams in the world," Guardiola said. "We played a very, very good second half. The first half, we were so-so. We looked tired because of the jetlag and a lot of heat and humidity is not easy to play in."
The match was played in front of a crowd worthy of a more pressing occasion than a preseason friendly. The sellout set a new soccer record for the Washington-Baltimore area as fans of the two European giants came together to witness the marquee matchup.
"It was a great atmosphere," Ferguson said. "I thought quite possibly it was 50-50 in terms of the fan base tonight, and they're all mixed together. It's a fantastic sight to see that. It gives you hope our game is bereft of some of the things that have happened in the past."