Barcelona 3-0 Manchester United: Lionel Messi magic and individual errors prove toxic combination for United
On a night when they needed perfection, United were hindered by their limitations and overwhelmed by their opposition’s class.
Lionel Messi magic and individual errors is a dangerous combination and in the end a four-minute spell was all it took for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dreams to turn to dust as his side were unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage by Barcelona 3-0 on the night and 4-0 on aggregate.
Despite the 1-0 deficit, an unlikely third European away comeback was believable after opening exchanges in which United offered more threat than in the entire home leg.
But once Messi had found his groove and made his mark, United’s mission at Camp Nou vanished as appreciation for a team operating on an entire different level, led by one of the best of all time, took centre stage in one of Europe’s greatest stadiums.
Messi on song
He may have been keep quiet at Old Trafford, with Chris Smalling’s impact on his nose the biggest talking point, but there was little chance United were going to stifle Messi in successive games.
Once Barca had weathered the briefest of storms, as Marcus Rashford clipped the crossbar and Scott McTominay botched a presentable opening, it was all about the Argentinian magician.
In a flash Messi had taken the tie away from Solskjaer’s plucky but painfully under-par team.
The video assistant referee and a second look for referee Felix Brych ensured Messi wouldn’t open his account from the penalty spot after Fred challenged Ivan Rakitic, but he wasn’t to be denied.
Ashley Young, playing at left-back, was robbed by Rakitic and Messi pounced. He beat Fred, forced Smalling and Phil Jones to retreat by means of an apparent forcefield before opening his body and bending a familiar shot into the bottom corner with his trusty left foot.
If his first owed more to his brilliance than United’s negligence then his second – his 10th of the Champions League season, 45thof the campaign overall and 597th for Barca – was the other way around. Messi’s under-hit effort from the edge of the area somehow crept underneath David de Gea to end the contest in the 20th minute.
De Gea made a point-blank save from Sergi Roberto, but Philippe Coutinho picked out the top corner from distance to complete the scoring and ensure Barca’s alarming run of defeats in the Champions League quarter-finals came to a halt.
The honeymoon period is most definitely over for Solskjaer. Defeat at Camp Nou makes it five from United’s last seven games in all competitions. A fairytale succession of nine away wins on the spin suddenly seems a long time ago.
While the race for a top-four place in the Premier League remains at the forefront of United’s thoughts for now, the summer looms large – for Solskjaer, Ed Woodward and fans alike.
Had another comeback been manufactured it would have been achieved with a back four consisting of limited centre-backs Smalling and Jones, Young and Victor Lindelof playing as converted full-backs, and with 22-year-old McTominay and only recently recalled Fred sitting in front.
Miracles do happen in football, but not very often. Asking Solskjaer to perform them over and over is at best romantic and at worst wilfully naive.
United didn’t so much as lay a glove on their opponents. Rashford’s striking of the crossbar was fleeting; Alexis Sanchez’s stooping header to force Marc-Andre ter Stegen into his only save of the entire tie much too late in the day.
With past glories still fresh in their minds, their greatest ever manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, accompanying them to Barcelona and an excellent motivator as coach, United believed they could do it. Ultimately belief was not enough.