Messi magic and De Gea mishap allow Barcelona to stroll past Man Utd

Ole Gunner Solskjær’s side outplayed at the Nou Camp

Barcelona 3 ManchesterUnited 0 (Barcelona win 4-0 on agg)

If there was one tiny glimmer of consolation for Manchester United, it was that they encountered Lionel Messi on one of those nights when he appeared to belong to a different species. Messi loves the big occasion and, once again, he used the Champions League to provide yet more evidence for the already bulging portfolio that tells us nobody, not even Maradona, has ever taken football artistry to a higher level.

For United, it was simply too much. Lionel Messi versus Phil Jones? It was like watching a landscape artist comparing brush strokes with a painter and decorator. Yet, in fairness to Jones, he was not the only one in United’s colours to suffer.

David de Gea, for one, will remember this as a personal ordeal. It was a night, ultimately, that should hasten the process of Ole Gunner Solskjær putting together a new defence. Mostly, however, it was an occasion to savour Messi, to be grateful the sport has him, and hope that he plays football for as long as he is capable of sprinkling this form of precious magic on the elite occasions.


The only surprise, perhaps, was that the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, did not contribute the game's outstanding goal. That honour fell to Philippe Coutinho shortly after the hour mark. Though Messi, naturally, was involved in the build-up and the first of his two goals was pretty special, too. Even before we get to the overhead kick he tried in the second half. Or all those other occasions when he lit up the night with his speed, thought and movement.

“Walking to Glory”‚ read the huge banner behind one goal. And, in Messi’s case, it is often that way. For a player who inflicts such damage, he ambles through large parts of each match. He is always thinking, though, and always assessing what is possible. Then he comes alive, as he did spectacularly here, and seems capable of turning opponents into training-ground cones.

Unfortunately for United, he was facing an obliging back-line here – and, at times, they played into his hands. That, more than anything, must have been the frustration for Solskjær during that four-minute spell in the first half when, realistically, all hope for United ebbed away. Twice, his players were guilty of losing the ball inside their own half. It is the defender’s sin at any level, let alone against a side where the wearer of the No 10 shirt gives the impression he is merely visiting this planet.

For the first goal, it was Ashley Young waving an apologetic hand, having got himself in a fix under pressure from Ivan Rakitic. When Messi made it 2-0 it was Fred's turn, even before we consider that wretched piece of goalkeeping from De Gea to allow the ball an almost implausible route beneath his body. No side at this level can make these kind of mistakes and expect to get away with it. Messi was waiting to pounce on both occasions and his first goal in particular was just another reminder that, on the big nights, he always wants to be the centrepiece of the show.

It was certainly difficult to know which was the more exquisite moment on that slalom through United's defence: the close-range nutmeg to take Fred out of the equation or the body movement that sent Jones completely the wrong way.

Jones, United’s gloriously accident-prone centre half, had a bandage wrapped round his head even before the game started. Very soon, the poor chap looked in need of smelling salts. Messi had set off on horizontally, right to left, until he had the ball just where he wanted it, pulling back his left foot and scoring with a typically elegant finish from just outside the penalty area.

Messi's second goal originated from his right foot, though he looked as surprised as anyone when De Gea let it beat him, and that could conceivably have wrapped up a nine-minute hat-trick were it not for the VAR officials deciding, at 0-0, that the German referee, Felix Brych, was mistaken to award a penalty for Fred's challenge on Rakitic.

At that stage United’s supporters in the most vertiginous tiers of this cavernous old bowl might actually have felt encouraged by the brisk way their team had set off. That was the huge frustration for Solskjær: early on, his team looked full of confidence.

Jesse Lingard, in particular, was finding space in a central role, running from deep, in between Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Scott McTominay, Fred and Paul Pogba were quick to support the front three and Rashford had a glorious chance inside the opening minute to give the away side a dream start. No Barça player had even touched the ball at that point. But Rashford's shot skimmed the crossbar and, given what was to follow, that should serve as a reminder that these are the kind of chances, when the stakes are so high, that have to be taken.

As it was, the second half for United was little more than an exercise in damage limitation. All their early adventure had been punctured. They rarely emerged as an attacking force again and were in danger of it becoming a rout when Coutinho’s diagonal shot flew over De Gea for the third goal. – Guardian