We’ll always have Paris!
It never seemed likely that there would be a repeat dose of heroics for Manchester United as they headed to Barcelona on Tuesday, and Lionel Messi’s latest show of brilliance simply helped to underline just how far behind the head table of European football United really are.
Their 3-0 defeat in the Camp Nou was as chastening as it was predictable. Whereas Paris Saint-Germain were ripe for a mugging at the Parc des Princes last month, it would have been expecting far too much to ask them to deliver in quite the same way again.
For this was simply a demonstration of where Manchester United are in the grand scheme of things right now. They are plucky and determined but lacking in a defined vision and in serious need of a refresh. This is not the team of 1999 which so memorably fought its way to glory on the very same Camp Nou surface, and Barcelona are no PSG bottle-jobs.
The Premier League club’s best hope was to launch a quick raid, but they couldn’t make their excellent start pay.
Marcus Rashford had hit the bar in little over 30 seconds after bursting beyond the Barca defence, and within minutes there was an opening for Scott McTominay. When Rashford again had the home side back-pedalling the striker slipped as he shot and the chance was gone.
One was left wondering whether the club would be made to pay for not taking those opportunities and it didn’t take long for Messi to ensure that Solskjaer’s side would indeed be left with a feeling of ‘What if?’
Much like Paris Saint-Germain’s exit in the previous round was largely their own doing, Man Utd had a huge hand in their own downfall. First, Ashley Young attempted a Cruyff turn rather than a simple back-pass barely 20 yards from his own goal having nearly lost the ball once already from a Manchester United free-kick seconds earlier.
Young’s homage to one Barca legend ended in a goal for another. Ivan Rakitic blocked the full-back’s attempt and Messi pounced. Beating Young to the loose ball, the Argentine genius nutmegged Fred and cut inside before delivering a perfect left-footed shot into the far bottom corner of the net.
Tie over? It was four minutes later.
Messi unleashed a seemingly tame effort goalwards after being given time to shoot and De Gea conspired to allow the ball to escape between his arm and his torso as he went down to collect, and as soon as it squirmed over the line everybody in the stadium knew there was simply no way back for the Old Trafford outfit.
They had already escaped a penalty award shortly before the first goal, with Fred’s challenge on Ivan Rakitic being deemed legal after a referral by the VAR, and once Messi’s twin strike had punched United in the gut they resembled a wounded animal just waiting to be put out of their misery.
Young, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looked ill-equipped to deal with any of the Barcelona threats, while Victor Lindelof never seemed particularly settled in his makeshift right-back position. Paul Pogba was again ineffective in midfield, and the front three were rarely involved as United’s backs remained firmly against the wall.
Philippe Coutinho put the dagger through their hearts with a delicious third on the hour and suddenly the endless repeats this week of the club’s 4-0 loss here in 1994 on Barcelona’s in-house TV station appeared set to be proved prophetic. An extraordinary Messi overhead kick so nearly ensured the Red Devils went down a similarly ignominious defeat, although the gap could have been reduced late on were it not for Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s exceptional save from an Alexis Sanchez diving header.
The positive about this whole experience is that Manchester United actually made it to a Champions League quarter-final for the first time in five years, but that is to measure them by parameters with which they have never been accustomed.
They want to compete regularly, they want to reach the summit once more. Right now, they are nowhere near either, and Tuesday was all the proof in the world that there is a huge job on for Solskjaer and those above him if the club are to get back to those heights any time soon.