The next six days will feature so much talk of historic comebacks in Camp Nou, but the tone of this tie is really the most predictable and routine of Barcelona victories. A 1-0 home defeat for Manchester United, that was secured by a goal that required another look, will not warrant many rewatches as regards entertainment. The aggressive edge apart, it felt so much more like a mundane Spanish league win rather than one of the most famous of Champions League pairings. Barcelona just did enough, because United could not do much.
That, in a different way, was another reality check for this new regime. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lost his fourth game in five – and sixth in all – because his side were just up against a much better team, who themselves didn’t actually look that good. They didn’t really look like favourites.
Whether that was because they didn’t need to be will be a bigger question if Barca go on and seal qualification in the second leg as anyone would expect. Sometimes, too, such sides just do what they must and occasional lulls to conserve energy are natural. But if that’s what it was it makes it all the more underwhelming. It wasn’t exactly a statement performance at one of Europe’s great stadiums.
It certainly didn’t have the epic feel of the Paris Saint-Germain tie, even the first leg. That in itself may be worse for United.
This was a game where they were just slowly smothered, rather than so suddenly stunned as against PSG. It’s going to be hard to lift themselves from something so lifeless. But will the same be true of Barca?
It was a bad game, and a mediocre performance from the Spanish champions, with even a bruised Leo Messi barely raising his level.
He was of course still central to the game’s decisive moment, as was an old Old Trafford antagonist in Luis Suarez.
There was at least something a little special about that.
The officials may have needed a second look at the goal, but Messi didn’t need any look at all to create it. After Sergio Busquets had played the ball through, the Argentine’s touch took him wide and facing away from goal. Without even glancing up once, however, Messi instinctively knew where Suarez was and lofted a luscious cross onto his head. The Uruguayan headed it back across goal and in, off Luke Shaw.
When the linesman’s flag went up, so did the heckles, as Old Trafford absolutely revelled in taunting the former Liverpool player for celebrating too early.
That in itself was too early. Referee Gianluca Rocchi went to VAR and the goal was predictably given. Suarez was now revelling in it, and it was impossible not to imagine the mischievous figure within the Uruguayan enjoyed the way it played out all the more. That was probably sweeter for him than getting credited with what ultimately went down as an own goal.
There was an edge to the game beyond Suarez, though. Both Ashley Young and Busquets were lucky not to get booked early on, and luckier not to get sent off as the game went on further, with the Barca midfielder really guilty of a series of yellow-card offences.
Chris Smalling’s challenge on Messi wasn’t that, but it did help contribute to the sense of aggression in the game. The centre-half shoulder-barged the playmaker as he leapt for an aerial ball, with his flailing hand then catching Messi’s face to draw blood.
Smalling had said “bring it on” as regards the challenge of facing the Argentine before the match, only to then bring it himself.
The great problem for United, though, was that they needed to bring the game to Barca so much more… but couldn’t.
Against a side of such quality – and especially such quality in possession – Solskjaer inevitably set up to play on the counter, but the Spanish champions just didn’t offer them the space to do that. That is because, under Ernesto Valverde, they are a much more controlled side; much more minimalist.
Hence they give up so few goals, because it’s not always due to the quality of their defending. They did have a lot of sloppy moments, that were covered up by their ability to then cover space and then kill a passage of play with their passing.
Barca do have a fair few weaknesses for tournament favourites. United just didn’t have the attacking strength to really punish them.
Their attackers, and especially Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku, were dependent on scraps and long shots.
It was little surprise that Solskjaer eventually removed Lukaku for someone who could create something out of little in a dribbler like Anthony Martial. The further problem was United were barely getting “little”.
Paul Pogba – on a supposed audition for Real Madrid against their great rivals – meanwhile barely did anything at all.
United were just well short of Barca’s quality.
That was the basic story of this game.
It right now doesn’t feel like it is going to be a tie that adds to the lore of United. It didn’t really add to the reputation of this Barca, either.
It’s going to need a significant electrical charge for any of that to change in the second leg.
The site of United’s most famous win now feels set up for one of their most underwhelming eliminations.