In a one-sided night of football, Barcelona blew Manchester United away 3-0.
The Blaugrana absorbed a fast start from United and then obliterated them for the last 80 minutes of the game, qualifying for their first semi-final since they last won the competition in 2015. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Leo Messi
The best player in the world was quiet at Old Trafford after getting smacked in the face by Chris Smalling in the first-half. The wounds suffered put him off and United escaped with just a 1-0 defeat. No such luck tonight at the Camp Nou as Messi came to play.
After surveying the game for 10 minutes, Messi roared to life by beating Ashley Young to a 50/50 and then nutmegged poor Fred before bending space and time around Chris Smalling and David de Gea and into the back of the net. A reality-warping goal that ignited the Camp Nou, and then Messi was rolling.
Messi’s second was a huge goalkeeping error, but his performance beyond his goals was unreal. He was dominating the game with his passing, his dribbling and his movement. United couldn’t lay a glove on him, with Messi leading Phil Jones in particular a merry dance. Even when he didn’t get an assist he produced a miracle pass that travelled fully 40 yards through the air, cutting the United defence apart and opening up the space for Philippe Coutinho to hammer home the third.
These were Messi’s first Champions League quarter-final goals since 2011 against Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as his 23rd and 24th goals against English opposition in the Champions League. No player has battered the Premier League big boys more than Messi and he’s back in the semi-finals with his eyes fully locked on winning the European Cup again.
Loser: David de Gea
The last time David de Gea played at the Camp Nou was eight years ago. He was a 20-year-old Atlético Madrid player then, playing in his second season as a first-team professional (in a side containing Diego Godín and Sergio Aguero). He got absolutely tuned up on that occasion, losing 3-0. The man who did the damage that day was one Leo Messi with a hat-trick.
Fast-forward to tonight and it was once again Leo Messi who sliced and diced De Gea. Messi is obviously the best player in the world, so any goalie is at a natural disadvantage when facing him. You really don’t need to be helping him out to add to your woes! De Gea could do nothing about Messi’s first goal, which the Catalan curled around him with impossible geometry, nor Coutinho’s wonderstrike.
But the second goal? Messi hit a dribbling shot from 25 yards out with his right-foot. It was headed right at the Spaniard and yet somehow De Gea dove over the ball and allowed it to squirm in underneath him. 2-0 down and the tie was virtually over, all because De Gea had another nightmare at the Camp Nou.
Winner: Philippe Coutinho
At long last, Philippe Coutinho did something brilliant! Not only did he do something brilliant, but he married that brilliance with a supreme performance. This was the kind of thing that Barcelona have been dreaming he would do for an age, this is what they signed him for.
Coutinho was humming against United. He took up intelligent positions and moved the ball quickly when he got on it. There was none of the dopey dwelling on the ball that has characterised his bad performances, no. Now he was confident and composed.
Maybe it was the sight of Premier League opposition that fired him up, maybe it was the ol’ Liverpool man in him, but for the first time in forever Coutinho’s lungs didn’t give out after 30 minutes and he had enough puff to drive at the heart of United and launch a trademark Coutinho piledriver into the top corner in the second half. He was even given a standing ovation when he was subbed off (despite his provocative goal celebration)! Could this be the kick-start his Camp Nou career needed? Watch this space!
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Loser: Marcus Rashford
When you’re playing at the elite level of football, in the crunch games against the best opponents, you have to take your chances. Sure against weaker sides you can afford to miss two or three shots because you know that you’ll get more chances. At the elite level? No way. You need to be clinical because you never know when your next chance is coming.
That’s a lesson Marcus Rashford will have to learn after his display tonight. The English striker was tasked with leading the line for United and within one minute he was 1v1 with Marc-André Ter Stegen. His lofted finish clipped the top of the bar without ever looking like it was going in. Later on in the half he had a good look at goal and fell over as he shot, killing the chance.
No one who watched the match could deny Rashford’s quality; his movement was sublime and Barcelona couldn’t really live with it. But his finishing betrayed his inexperience. He’ll get better for sure, but this was a learning experience.
Winner: Sergio Busquets
Sergio Busquets played as poorly as he has all season at Old Trafford. He looked tired, unable to close space and was honestly lucky to avoid a red card for multiple tackles worthy of yellows. Exhaustion has meant that he has struggled in every quarter-final in the last few years as the Blaugrana have been eliminated, and it looked like the same thing was happening again.
But tonight was Busquets back to his brilliant best. With his midfield partners playing closer to him, Busquets was able to exert his tremendous influence over the game. He pressed United’s forwards brilliantly, blocked the passes from United’s midfielders and just generally ran the show from the middle of the park. This was Busquets back to his best, which bodes well for Barça.
Loser: Ed Woodward
Tonight Manchester United lined up with David de Gea in goal and a back four that contained Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young. Seven years ago when Manchester United were turfed out of the Champions League in the group stages by FC Basel, they had an XI that contained David de Gea, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young.
Now, retaining players over that length of time if they’re good is a fine thing. Barcelona had three players in their XI today that started in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League final wins under Pep Guardiola. But Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young are barely good. They’re alright at most. And worse? None of them was playing in the same position they were in 2011.
Young has gone from left-wing to right-back, Smalling right-back to centre-back and Jones from midfield to defence. It’s shambolic that United have spent so much money in the last seven years yet still have these buffoons starting in a crucial European game. That is 100% down to Ed Woodward, who may be one of the world’s best commercial directors but is comfortably among the world’s worst sporting directors. Having players like Pogba is no good if United’s defence is full of such average nonsense.
Ole being at the wheel means nothing if Woodward is the one who built the car, because there’s only so far you can take a lemon.