Back in the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in five years, GiveMeSport went behind the scenes to see how Manchester United’s return to the big time unfolded, as minimalist Barcelona showed them how it is done.
“A lot of things have to work in our favour, we have to be lucky and Messi has to have a night off,” BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand told GiveMeSport ahead of kick off at Old Trafford, clearly fearful of the gulf between Barcelona and United ahead of their quarter-final first leg clash.
United fans have not been treated to such a spectacle in five seasons, as the post-Sir Alex Ferguson woes have continued from manager to manager, but, after the most remarkable of miracle wins in Paris, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has steered United through to the last eight, while getting fans believing again, even if former defender Ferdinand struggled to sound too convinced.
Former United midfielder Owen Hargreaves and BT Sport pundit eulogised to GiveMeSport pitchside before the game over many a famous European night at Old Trafford from his playing days, insisting such memories still “give him tingles”. A chance of another famous victory over Barca? “We will see,” came the riposte.
The reason for such pessimism is obvious. Barcelona, on course for yet another La Liga crown, have hit top gear in the Champions League this season after failing to reach the last four since 2014-15, when they clinched the treble.
Lionel Messi, after a reasonably lean, by his astronomical standards, Champions League goal return of six strikes last season, is back atop the goalscoring charts with eight on the continent this season and, up against a United defence that has looked vulnerable of late after an earlier resurgence under Solskjaer, the nerves were palpable around Old Trafford.
United came out of the blocks sluggishly and, in true Barca style, the visitors unlocked United with a 48-pass move for the early opener, which eventually went in off Luke Shaw.
Every single Barca player touched the ball in the move that led to Luis Suarez’s header going in off off Shaw, after a VAR review. The roof almost came off Old Trafford when Suarez was initially silenced by the offside flag, before the former Liverpool public enemy No.1 had the last laugh.
For all the pre-match buzz and a real sense of expectation with United back in the big time in front of the watching cameras, Old Trafford had fallen flat before it had even got registered even a murmur.
United were simply second best, and enjoyed just 11 per cent possession after 15 minutes. While this represented two per cent more than the first 15 in Paris, in front of your own fans, hyped up back in the last eight, such a lack of involvement, chasing shadows, is a sure-fire way to dampen the mood.
The moment when things could have taken a different turn came late in the opening 45 minutes, but Diogo Dalot, tasked with a Messi marking job, got his close-range header all wrong. On such moments, ties can change.
Barca, in truth were not anything like their best, but they did not have to be. Messi dropped deep to try to influence things, but the final, killer pass eluded him, Suarez cut a frustrated figure with some robust defending, while Philippe Coutinho, who exuded class on occasion, produced little when it really mattered.
A minimalist Barcelona, which Ernesto Valverde has so expertly crafted, can now win games when not at their best, against teams like United who have plenty of gusto, but not the match-winning talent to unlock the very best.
Gerard Pique was excellent on his return to Manchester, but Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku disappointed the expectant masses at M16, exemplifying just how much work is still needed to be done by Solskjaer and his staff.
"Going to the Nou Camp is going to be a challenge,” Solskjaer said after the match. “It would be a greater achievement. With the history of Barcelona, they are not used to losing at home, but we can do it, no doubt about it.”
Fans left with little doubt as to where their team is at as, in front of the watching world, United’s return to the big time ended with nothing more than whimper. Progress has been made, of that there can be no doubt, but up against the very best, this was simply a step too far.
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