Gary Neville: How the 2009 Champions League final changed football

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Pep Guardiola’s debut season as Barcelona manager was nothing short of extraordinary.

The Catalan coach, who had been in charge of Barcelona B the season before his promotion, inspired his team to glory in La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the UEFA Champions League.

Barça had lost their way under Frank Rijkaard but were transformed following the arrival of Guardiola, whose innovative thinking and fierce work ethic led to him quickly establishing his status as the world’s best young coach.

Guardiola faced the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson in his first Champions League final and masterminded a deserved 2-0 victory in Rome.

Barcelona weather an early onslaught from their Premier League opponents before taking control of the game and scoring a goal either side of half-time.

Samuel Eto’o broke the deadlock in the 10th minute with a near-post finish past Edwin van der Sar, while Lionel Messi doubled Barça’s advantage with 20 minutes left to play courtesy of a fine header.

One United player who wasn’t able to play that night but was in the stands at the Stadio Olimpico was the club’s captain, Gary Neville.

Neville: How the 2009 CL final changed football

The right-back, who would later go on to become the best pundit on British television, believes this was the match that changed football forever.

Speaking on the latest Gary Neville podcast, he explained: “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.

“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.

Manchester United's Portuguese forward C

“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.

Barcelona´s midfielder Lionel Messi (C)

“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.”

UEFA Champions League Final - Barcelona Training

Basically, Neville believes this was the night the world noticed *how* Barcelona were playing out from the back - and managers everywhere have since tried to replicate it, with mixed success.

You will do well to find a team that doesn’t try and play out from the back these days - it’s just the done thing.

Managers have seen the benefit of building attacks from the back and retaining possession instead of instantly clearing any potential danger by lumping the ball upfield.

And Neville reckons that’s down to Guardiola and how his Barcelona side outplayed United in Rome on that night in May 2009.

Gary Neville
Pep Guardiola
La Liga
Lionel Messi
Premier League
Gerard Pique
Manchester United

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