In a defensively tight night, Barcelona beat Manchester United 0-1 at Old Trafford.
The win gives Barça a huge advantage in the Champions League as they now take a 1-0 lead back to the Camp Nou for the second leg, giving them a great chance to make their first semi-final since 2015. What did we learn?
1. Piquénbauer’s Heroic Homecoming
Gerard Piqué joined Manchester United back in 2003, playing for the Red Devils until 2008 (well, bar one season on loan with Zaragoza). He has said that he arrived at United a boy and left a man, and that’s definitely true. He has since become one of the greatest centre-backs in the world and stayed at that enormous level for years and years.
Wednesday was his first game back at Old Trafford since leaving United, and he put on an absolute clinic. With Barcelona sitting deep and relying on their defence to see them through after taking the lead, it was up to Gerard Piqué to carry the load. Luckily for the Blaugrana he was more than up for the challenge.
Piqué was a one-man defensive wall. Every single pass, shot or cross that came into the United box usually met its end with the head or one of the limbs of Gerard Piqué. His instincts were perfect and his timing was exemplary. United couldn’t get a damn thing by him and even the one lean look at goal United did get, Piqué had already moved into position to clear it off the line.
This was Piqué’s second world-class performance in a row following his masterpiece against Atlético Madrid. The man sometimes known as Piquénbauer will be absolutely essential if Barça are intending to progress in the second leg. And if the last week is anything to go by then the Catalan colossus is more than up for the challenge.
2. Arise, McTominay
When José Mourinho played Scott McTominay ahead of Paul Pogba, he did so mostly just to upset the Frenchman. But under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer there have been signs of a quality player emerging from the lanky frame of the kid who Mourinho used to humiliate Pogba.
No Man Utd player completed more take-ons (2) or won more aerial duels (3) vs. Barcelona than Scott McTominay.
OGS' settling presence in midfield. 🧖♂️ pic.twitter.com/aEgho2X1yb
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 10, 2019
McTominay was supreme in Paris as United beat PSG, and tonight against Barcelona he was once again on point. In fact one could convincingly make a case for him being the best midfielder on the park. Honestly, the Scot was immense. He blocked shots, passes and even passed the ball with a competent authority. He was unnerved by his excellent opponents and simply played his game. Fred was good, McTominay was great.
He may never end up being world-class, but he can definitely be a useful squad player – like a really tall Darren Fletcher. He very much makes Nemanja Matic surplus to requirements as he can do everything the Serbian can do despite being eight years younger, and what’s more he has the potential to grow and improve even with bad performances. This season could be the start of something for the Scot.
3. Solskjaer excellently exploits the fatigue factor
With Manchester United not playing this weekend whilst Barcelona had to go toe-to-toe in a brutal title clash against Atlético Madrid, the Blaugrana were always going to be the more tired side. Now, had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan sent United out with a parked bus, playing on the break, that could have allowed the visitors to ease themselves into a game.
So United went out pressing hell for leather. Well, maybe not that much. Their press was mostly focused on the mid-block from open play, trying to disrupt the Barcelona midfielders from getting the ball to the forwards. And that worked. Where United really excelled however was from Barcelona’s goal kicks, where they created a cage around their goal preventing easy passes to the defenders, forcing them to kick it long where Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof devoured the aerial duels against Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez.
This gameplan was so smart because with United’s extra energy, they not only won those first balls but they were nearly always first to the second balls and 50/50s as well. Barcelona couldn’t raise themselves to match United’s intensity and if the Red Devils had executed their attacks better in the final third then they could have actually turned this game around.
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4. Sensational Semedo
Not for the first time this season, Nelson Semedo has played a blinder in a big game. The Portuguese was the only surprise start in the Barcelona XI and was likely selected for his excellent defending and ability to cope with Manchester United’s incredible pace.
And, well, he did exactly that. Semedo was a brick wall down his flank and Manchester United got absolutely no joy attacking him. They threw every single one of their best players at Semedo and the no. 2 rebuffed them all. He even managed to created Barça’s best chance of the second half, giving Suárez a clean look at goal the Uruguayan should have done better with.
Semedo was supreme and probably the only Barcelona player who didn’t look exhausted – which was probably because he was the only Barcelona player who didn’t play at the weekend. The Portuguese made the most of his freshness to hurtle up and down the touchline, linking passes with team-mates and providing a solid outlet on the right. A consummate performance that in a sane world would confirm him as the Catalan’s first-choice right-back.
5. Valverde gets what he wants, the fans don’t
Ernesto Valverde is a very defensive coach. He doesn’t take risks, he doesn’t trust young players and he’s petrified of making mistakes. His mentality was probably to come to Old Trafford and do the bare minimum needed to get out of town with a win.
And thus, Barça started brightly. They were zipping the ball around and scored a very well-worked first goal, featuring two gorgeous passes from Sergio Busquets and Leo Messi before Luis Suárez’s headed pass to give Philippe Coutinho a tap-in was deflected into his own net by Luke Shaw. That goal came at the end of a 48-pass move that involved every single Barcelona player.
That came just 12 minutes into the game and should have been the start of a brutal beatdown. But in classic Valverde fashion, after getting the lead and a priceless away goal, Barcelona retreated. They played as though they had done enough. “1-0 away from home first leg? Yeah, that’ll do,” and were content to see the game out. Except it was so early in the game that this strategy let United back into the game.
Man Utd 0-1 Barcelona FT:
Pass accuracy: 84%-91%
Chances created: 3-4
Barca take a one-goal lead going into the second leg at Camp Nou. pic.twitter.com/xBXUk0XAx7
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 10, 2019
With Barcelona trying to play the clock out for basically 70 minutes, United came at them and had a lot of the ball but thanks to Gerard Piqué’s excellence, no threat every reached Marc-André ter Stegen in a serious manner. Barcelona could have won this game by a two or three goal margin as there was oceans of space to attack on the break late in the game, but Valverde – content with his lead – showed no interest in bringing on anyone who would have the pace to exploit that space.
So Barcelona won, and Valverde became the first Barça manager to win a game at Old Trafford. That’s a huge achievement, but the way he achieved it was horrendous to watch. He’ll leave Old Trafford happy and Barcelona will be confident of seeing the tie out at home where they are much better (and haven’t lost a European tie since 2013), but this cowardice and satisfaction with the bare minimum haunted him at this stage last year against Roma – could haunt him in the second leg against United and even if they do make it to the semis, it could even rare its head there against Liverpool.
Take a risk, Ernesto, it won’t kill you!