download All Football App

Messi and Barcelona show they remain a cut above Manchester United

  /  autty

It was the absence of the remotest complaint from Lionel Messi when Manchester United finally laid a glove on him that encapsulated the gulf between them and him.

It had taken every ounce of effort Chris Smalling could muster to barge in front of him to intercept a ball that the architect of this quarter final was about to take down. Smalling’s trailing arm struck Messi in the face and for a moment or two he just sat there, staring into space, dabbing the blood that had gathered on his left eyelid and was running from his nose.

There was a kind of nonchalance about that moment and the Englishman’s protestations of innocence were half-hearted at best. ‘Bring it on,’ Smalling had said on the eve of this match. Words which signified nothing when Messi materialised, buzzing around and in front of him.

Manchester United had reasons to believe that Messi would be out of their sight by now. When Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona submitted them to that mesmerising display in the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley – the 3-1 scoreline barely did them justice – Sir Alex Ferguson took comfort in the fact that he would not be around forever. ‘How long it lasts,’ was the question, he reflected in the aftermath. ‘Whether Barcelona can replace that team at some point. It's always difficult to find players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi all the time, [so] probably not…’

Well, the last of that triumvirate is still the same force of nature as ever. This night demonstrated why Old Trafford has missed the regularity of Springtime evenings like. The stadium bounced. And yet the chasm was as great as the one that Ferguson discovered on that May night in London. Not the metronomic danger. Not the carousel which left the great man wondering how he would find a way. But still Catalonian football on another level.

You sensed that it might be a night when Luis Suarez, discovering peak form as Barcelona have all but clinched the La Liga title, might extract revenge for the visceral hate felt for him in these parts since the Patrice Evra episode of seven years ago, which saw him found guilty of racial abuse.

His goal – an angular header of geometrical perfection - certainly did deliver a kind of reckoning on a night which revealed that, at 32, he now offers a different kind of threat. More deadly finishing, less of the bulldozing, physical runs into the box which served Liverpool so well, even though his shot into the side-netting really should have seen this tie out.

But Messi provided all the majesty where that opening strike was concerned; taking a ball Sergio Busquets ball had lofted up towards him into the United box and - as if by osmosis because he did not seem to need to look up - shifting his centre of gravity to measure the ball which the Uruguayan leant into to score.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s players were certainly primed to deal with Messi. Scott McTominay and Feed, operating on front of Smalling, were glued to him the game’s early stages, hoping between the two of them to shackle him. The anxiety when he one player was left alone to cope was evident. Luke Shaw reverted to man-handling the captain, earning the booking which means he will miss next week’s return.

Yet it was hard to avoid the sense that he is in the process of demonstrating about his club, who have not gone beyond the quarter-final stage since winning the competition in 2015. He has failed to score in any of his past 11 Champions League quarter-finals.

Though he was the epitome of casual in his warm up routine - socks down, gloves on, evading attention as he generally likes to do - the game found him covering parts that the world’s outstanding creative players are not supposed to reach. Scrapping with Diogo Dalot to rescue a ball on his own by-line after a Marcus Rashford free-kick. Tussling with Paul Pogba in United’s midfield.

If there is a hope for United, who now require a repeat what they have achieved in Turin and Paris on their journey to this stage, it resides in a defensive vulnerability against their opponents, which they could exploit from wide areas.

At one stage, Clement Lenglet attempted to walk the ball out of his own error, hit a group of four United players and surrendered possession. United’s failure to strike one ball on target was unforgivable against a side who did give them moments of hope.

Neither can it be sacrilegious to say that Sergio Busquets is a player they can exploit next week. From his rash early challenges on McTominay, to the poor control which forced him to hold back Paul Pogba and be booked, to a second infringement on Pogba, he did not look comfortable.

But Messi did. As he seized possession last night, the shiny, shallow apparatus of football – the propaganda, the preening – evaporated away and we were left the unalloyed, brilliant, simplicity of the player with ball at his feet, navigating it wheresoever he chose.