Great Champions League nights at Old Trafford have been few since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down six years ago next month. Manchester United against Barcelona, two of the three biggest football clubs in the world, had the ingredients on first glance, but the two giants are in very different places in 2019. Barcelona have every reason to think they can win the competition in Madrid in June, United felt blessed just to still be in it after March’s miracle in Paris.
Barça dominated for long periods just as Juventus, Valencia and PSG had at Old Trafford this season. United have scored only once at home in the Champions League, a 91st-minute Marouanne Fellaini header against Young Boys.
United initially looked like young boys against the slick Catalans, shown when Luke Shaw, who’d scored an own goal, grabbed at Lionel Messi to stop him with the desperation of one trying to make the last helicopter during the fall of Saigon. Shaw, who played on the left of a three-man defence, was booked and will miss the second leg, a game as ominous for United as that trip to Paris.
Can they repeat the miracle? It’s just as implausible, but United’s fans hurrying to the stadium at the end of a sunny Mancunian day were realists.
The regular nights of Champions League ties have long gone, but with scant expectation came little pressure. United’s mere 11 per cent of possession after 15 minutes was only 2 per cent less than at the equivalent stage in Parc de Princes.
Old Trafford and United’s players froze when Sevilla visited in a last 16 tie last year, but were strangely more relaxed against the Catalans. Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho, who did so well at Liverpool that they moved onwards and upwards to Barcelona, were booed whenever they touched the ball. Suarez was serenaded with ‘you Scouse bastard’ after his well-aimed 12th-minute header found its way in via Shaw, though that chant was stifled when the goal was given. It came after an attack featuring 48 passes involving every single visiting player.
The 2,000 travelling Catalans – they returned 1,700 tickets – made a some noise, but they couldn’t compete with the primal, unorchestrated screams which greet every United attack and tackle on a European night. They were more effective in lifting the mood than chants of ‘Viva Ronaldo’ for a former hero and Barça foe.
Marcus Rashford, United’s chief threat, asked to hear the energy and the fans responded – though there were more chants for the manager than any player.
And the fans felt some hope as Barça wobbled and looked less dominant and United ventured forward, created chances and looked a little more like Manchester United should at home. The possession stats were picked up off the floor, United had eight shots to Barça’s four, though none were on target. And the less said about the quality of United’s crosses the better. Those and the free-kicks so over-hit that pining for Ronaldo was understandable.
Old Trafford responded, but not 1984 noisy when United surged back from a 2-0 Camp Nou defeat to win 3-0 at home. Many United fans still rate that as the loudest atmosphere they’ve ever experienced.
Nor as loud as in 2008 when Paul Scholes sent his team to the European Cup final, but when a team can bring on a player with the attacking threat of Anthony Martial, there’s always room for optimism, especially if the midfield can get Nemanja Matic or Ander Herrera back, though Scott McTominay can be hugely satisfied with his performance.
With two draws and two defeats, Barça hadn’t won on four previous trips to M16. They won 1-0, but United are not out of the tie, not after their away wins in European this term.
Barça have won 27 of their last 30 games at home in the competition and drawn three. United must go there and win next Tuesday. Ahead of that unexpected victory in Paris, Solskjaer said that mountains are there to be climbed. United then climbed Everest wearing flip-flops – surely they can’t climb K2 without oxygen.
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