Manchester United were dealt a brutal reality check in their 3-0 defeat to Barcelona at Camp Nou on Tuesday evening. A brace from Lionel Messi and another from Philippe Coutinho sealed a 4-0 aggregate victory for the Catalan hosts, who progress into the Champions League’s final four. For United, it’s a harsh reminder that they’re still a long way from competing with Europe’s best.
United looked genuinely threatening for a sum total of approximately two minutes, and more specifically the first two minutes of the match. Within seconds of kickoff Paul Pogba sent Marcus Rashford tearing through on goal, though the United attacker dinked his shot against the Barça crossbar. A minute later some intricate midfield play was marred by a clumsy Scott McTominay touch on the edge of the area, and another good chance went awry.
Soon Barça were exerting pressure for the first time, and it looked to have told when Fred tripped Ivan Rakitić in the penalty area. Having initially pointed to the spot, however, the referee reversed his decision after consulting VAR, correctly determining that the United midfielder had arrived at the ball ahead of his opponent.
Alas, United’s reprieve was brief, and with only a quarter-hour on the clock, a moment of Messi brilliance saw Barça double their aggregate lead. He came out of a tangle with Ashley Young on top (quelle surprise) and jinked away from Fred before curling home from the edge of the penalty area. It was classic, textbook Messi, and the kind of thing that not even the best defenders in the world can usually stop him doing.
But when Messi scored his second four minutes later, he really shouldn’t have. Taking advantage of some sloppy United midfield play, the Argentine drove towards goal, mustering only an uncharacteristically tame strike from the edge of the penalty area. Yet somehow, Messi’s strike squirmed through the hands of David de Gea, whose rare error allowed the hosts to take a 3-0 aggregate lead.
United would’ve surely slipped into damage limitation mode had Barça not almost immediately eased off. For the remainder of the half the hosts played with the clumsy contentedness of a engorged diner, as an ever more frustrated United snapped fruitlessly at their heels. The next best chance didn’t come until stoppage time, when some brilliant Messi play down the left culminated in a perfect low cross for Sergi Roberto, though his shot from point-blank range bounced back off de Gea and away. It was a miraculous save, but one rather more by accident than design.
Messi almost sealed his hat-trick within four minutes of the restart, though his low shot from the edge of the area bounced wide via a deflection off the leg of Young. In the end it was Coutinho that iced the Barça cake, striking a venomous long-range shot over de Gea and into the back of the net on the hour.
That, mercifully, was as bad as things got, with Barça content to cruise in with their four-goal aggregate lead. Indeed, United might have pulled one back through Alexis Sánchez in the final minute, though his diving header was excellently saved by the outstretched arm of Marc-André ter Stegen.