It was a match between two giants of the European game, but Manchester United vs Barcelona 2019, never came close to reaching the heights of the 2009 and 2011 vintage.
Indeed, of all of the games played between these historic rivals, it’s likely to go down as one of the worst.
That’s not to say it was all bad because there were moments in the game of note, and players who elevated their game above the rest.
Gerard Pique, on his return to Old Trafford, was one of those.
On a night when the normally reliable Sergio Busquets couldn’t string two passes together at times, when Lionel Messi was crowded out on almost every occasion that Barca attacked, and when the Catalans width and pace was non-existent, it was Pique’s class that shone the brightest.
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Ernesto Valverde will be thanking his lucky stars that it did too.
Though the Blaugrana were rarely outclassed, as no shots on target for United in a Champions League match for the first time since 2005 would attest, Barca’s uncharacteristically poor all-round showing offered the Red Devils hope throughout.
At 32, Pique is enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career, suggesting that his decision to retire from the Spanish national team came at just the right time.
It’s certainly been of benefit to Barcelona, who’d seen him play every minute of every league game right up until the Villarreal match in which he was rested.
With Clement Lenglet also out of sorts for long periods against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, Pique’s calm and assertive leadership steadied things for the visitors when required.
Even against the pace of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, and the strength of Romelu Lukaku, the centre-back remained unflustered, and his UEFA Man of the Match award was well deserved.
Physically and metaphorically, he was head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch, and United’s fervent support must rue the day when the powers that be allowed him to return to Barca for a nominal £5m in 2008.
Barcelona’s goal – all 47 passes and 193 seconds of it – began with Pique bringing the ball out from the back, in true Barca style. It’s that self-assurance in possession, even with the opposition breathing down your neck, that sets the No.3 apart.
It seems a lifetime ago now when Carles Puyol would regularly castigate Pique for acting the clown, and the pupil is now the teacher. The likes of Lenglet and Umtiti are learning from the very best.
Whatever the opinion of Pique the person, his outspoken words and actions often making him a target for vitriolic abuse, there’s no denying his quality on a football pitch. He’s a true master of the defensive craft.
With the second leg to be played within the week, United have an immediate chance to upset the apple cart at the Camp Nou again.
In order to do so, they not only need to keep tabs throughout on Suarez, Dembele and Messi, but their attackers must isolate Pique, force him out of his comfort zone and, whenever possible, move him from his central defensive sentry in order to open up the passing lanes.
Many have tried and failed to do that in 2018/19, and should that status quo remain in the second leg, then Valverde and Co. will owe a huge debt of gratitude to their elegant elder statesman.News Now - Sport News