Barcelona brilliance ends Manchester United’s Champions League run as Lionel Messi runs riot

Barcelona 3(4)-0(0) Manchester United: The Spaniards strolled into the Champions League semi-finals with a commanding victory at the Camp Nou

Miguel Delaney
Camp Nou
Tuesday 16 April 2019 21:53 BST
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer targeting trophies after being named Manchester United manager

It was a throw-back to the 1990s alright, but to 1994 rather than 1999. That was the year Manchester United went to Camp Nou and lost 4-0 in one of the club’s most chastening European nights that emphasised how far off they really were and although this was only 3-0, the nature of it actually felt so much more humiliating. It had the same effect, showing Ole Gunnar Solskaer just how much work really has to be done at this club.

There was a chasm between them and Barcelona, and a chasm between everyone and Leo Messi. It was of course the Argentine that scored the sublime goal that set the Spanish champions on the way to their first semi-final since 2015, in what was another special individual display, but that path never looked like being obstructed.

Even by the end of the first half, one English-language Barca banner that had seemed oddly phrased actually became spot on. “Walking to glory.”

That was what was what Barca were doing. That was all that was needed.

Even though Barcelona themselves do seem to have some flaws that top sides - like, maybe Liverpool - could exploit, United could never do that. They have too many players short of the level.

This was perhaps what this game most emphasised, even before you get to the extra-level brilliance of someone like Messi.

The grand irony is that Solskjaer probably had the right tactical idea, and this could have been a much tenser game than the stroll it became by half-time, but for two outliers. One was one of the greatest players in history. The other was some of the worst individual mistakes you’ll ever see, by some of the worst players United have had in their recent history. David De Gea obviously isn’t that but he is suddenly something of a problem.

Solskjaer’s side were just suddenly, then gradually, unravelled.

The Argentine scored twice early on
The Argentine scored twice early on (AFP/Getty)

It was a remarkable thing to consider by the end of the game, but the start of it did see United stun Barca a bit. Solskjaer’s side were causing real problems with their pace. Even then, though, there was always the sense that they would have to take their chances at that point because any pressure was always going to be brief. Marcus Rashford did hit the bar after a mere 32 seconds, Anthony Martial almost got in moments later.

It seemed a sign of how things were going - and how everything might just be upended - that one attack started with Ashley Young actually dispossessing Messi.

That was to take a darkly ironic twist, if an entirely predictable one.

Barca did quickly calm down, as would also have been expected, but Young didn’t. He seemed so oddly panicked when he found himself in possession of the ball in his own half on 15 minutes, hesitating on it, and then playing the team into trouble. Ivan Rakitic sensed blood and went for him, before Messi went for the jugular.

Messi celebrates his second goal
Messi celebrates his second goal (EPA)

The playmaker took out the majority of the United by taking a mere two touches in the most basic way possible, but the start of the move displayed his extrasensory stealth and the finish… well, was perfect. From the edge of the box, Messi still put it right into the bottom of the corner. It was too elusively good for De Gea to get near, and again displayed how Messi is on a level too elusively good for almost anyone in history.

The same couldn’t quite be said of the second, though. This was just another individual error of the type that undercut Solskjaer’s entire plan, and has sadly typified De Gea’s game more over the past year. The goalkeeper allowed an at-best firm shot to trickle under his body, after the weakest of stops.

To paraphrase one of the players in history who could rival Messi in Diego Maradona, it was a little with the foot of God and a little with the hand of De Gea.

You couldn’t really say it was costly, though, because there was already the feeling the game was finished with Messi’s first. That just reflected how Barca were a few levels beyond, in a same way it displayed the player was a few levels beyond.

Coutinho scored a wonderful third
Coutinho scored a wonderful third (Getty)

Some of the moments of the second half were even more embarrassing for United than the scoreline, as Barca were often operating at strolling pace and yet still so easily getting past them and by them.

In one minute, Messi and Rakitic were just standing there and yet still keeping the ball as they passed through and around United’s hapless players.

In another, Messi was so easily keeping the ball himself as he dribbled around half the team that Phil Jones resorted to pushing him. It was difficult not to think that was lasting frustration from an earlier moment where the Argentine subjected him to the most severe embarrassment of the night. Messi so easily twisted him one way and that, using the minimal space between Jones’ legs to open up all the space around the United box. It did bring one moment of De Gea’s actual quality, as he brilliantly stopped Sergio Roberto.

There was no stopping Barca’s third, though. After Messi - of course - fed Philippe Coutinho, the playmaker turned inside and just unleashed one of those trademark long-range strikes that are inherent to his game. It’s just that the Camp Nou hasn’t seen enough of them, or much from him at all, which was one reason why the Brazilian celebrated by putting his fingers in his ears.

United's Champions League adventure is over
United's Champions League adventure is over (Getty)

How many at United must have hoped they could do that while covering their eyes. It was jjust that much of a beating.

The game became so easy for Barca and Messi that he at one point almost bicycle-kicked the ball into the bottom corner after teeing it up himself.

That’s how easy it was. That’s how it was even worse than 1994, with big decisions to come. Barca, however, can rightfully hope the biggest prize in club football is finally coming back to them.

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