Friday 24 May 2019

Unstoppable Messi highlights United's failure to make any real progress in post-Ferguson era

Barcelona 3 Manchester Utd 0 (Barcelona win 4-0 on aggregate)

Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea looks back into his own net forlornly after letting a shot from Barcelona’s Lionel Messi slip under him. Photo: REUTERS/Sergio Perez
Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea looks back into his own net forlornly after letting a shot from Barcelona’s Lionel Messi slip under him. Photo: REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Sam Wallace

There is only one Champions League anniversary of theirs that Manchester United can say has been honoured in appropriate fashion this season, and that is the 10 years they have spent trying in vain to stop Lionel Messi.

This was just another evening when the unconquerable talent of the world's best footballer was the decisive factor in the end of another United European season, although there were days when that at least came in the final.

Alex Ferguson was on the touchline before the game shaking hands with old acquaintances and how different his life too would have been without the little king from Argentina and his dramatic interventions in two finals.

Ferguson's United faced peak Messi, although it can be hard to identify much in the way of a decline on evenings like this when, 10 years on from his first Champions League final triumph over United, they seem no closer to stopping him.

His first goal was so good it seemed to shock United into obeisance and they never recovered.

At some point before half-time, Messi dribbled past Phil Jones twice, either side of sending the inconveniently-placed German referee Felix Brych the wrong way with a sway of the hips.

Messi celebrates his first goal of the night at the Nou Camp. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Messi celebrates his first goal of the night at the Nou Camp. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

It would be wrong to ignore a vintage Barcelona team performance, an outstanding third goal from Philippe Coutinho and the usual midfield excellence from Ivan Rakitic and Arthur.

There was the restless foraging of Luis Suarez. But it is Messi who routinely reminds the opposition that they are in the presence of greatness and that scrambles their competitive instincts like nothing else.

All of which is not to excuse some very poor aspects of this United performance, including a David De Gea catastrophe for the second goal.

It would be easy to point the finger at the old boys of United's defence, but Jones, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling can at least say they did what they could.

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi attempts a over head kick during last night’s Champions League quarter-final second leg. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi attempts a over head kick during last night’s Champions League quarter-final second leg. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez, a second-half substitute, seemed incapable of moving the dial in this game.

Messi might well have scored a hat-trick, an overhead kick with his weaker right foot going wide in the second half.

Maybe the home crowd preferred him to save the rest for their first semi-final - most likely against Liverpool, or possibly Porto - since they last won the competition in 2015.

The strange thing was that it started so well for United, as if there was a plan to make the first few minutes as wild as possible for Barcelona and see what happened.

A dejected Paul Pogba reacts to Barcelona's third goal. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
A dejected Paul Pogba reacts to Barcelona's third goal. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Rashford struck the bar after 35 seconds, a funny kind of shot that Marc-Andre ter Stegen knew was not on target from the moment it left the young Englishman's boot. But what a chance, and the same could be said for Scott McTominay less than two minutes later.

The 22-year-old midfielder seemed not to believe that the ball had really reached him in a move that went from left to right across the Barcelona box, made by Fred and Rashford. McTominay's first touch was irredeemable, so bad there was no saving the moment or the chance.

The problem with this United team is not hard to divine when you consider that three of the defence were Ferguson signings, Smalling, Young and, at right-back, Jones.

There was nothing wrong with the efforts of these three but it is these games against the highest-quality opposition when the post-Ferguson years of failed renewal or upgrade are laid bare.

None of those three made a mistake quite so catastrophic as De Gea but they invite the kind of trouble that Messi and his team-mates can deliver.

Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer embraces Lionel Messi at the end of the game. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer embraces Lionel Messi at the end of the game. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

For about 15 minutes, nonetheless, United looked competent and dangerous and then it all just fell apart in one dazzling Messi moment when his opponents were forced to confront their limitations.

Before then there was a happy intervention for the video assistant referee when match official Brych quickly corrected the erroneous award of a penalty against Fred.

The German referee was in front of the VAR screen less time than he might have needed at the airport cash machine to realise that Ivan Rakitic had kicked the leg of the United midfielder, the latter having won the ball cleanly.

The VAR was good, the penalty overruled and the outlook hopeful for United.

Then, at left-back, Young gave the ball away on the left side and suddenly Messi was travelling at twice the speed of everyone else in the frame.

He went past Young, picked up speed as he deceived Fred and it was hard to tell if he even noticed Jones. The left-foot shot was wrapped around De Gea's right hand and inside his right post.

It was such a stark reminder of one man's effect on the sport and who knows if that was playing on minds when Messi scored his 45th of the season four minutes later.

He only hit the shot because nothing else was on and it bounced under the gloves of De Gea who, in normal circumstances, catches those without having to think.

The tie felt beyond United already at that point and it had barely started.

There was one more from Coutinho, a goal made by Messi's pass and Suarez's selfless knockdown to the third South American in the home side front line.

He struck it beautifully with his right, over the head of De Gea.

The United goalkeeper kept out another late hit from Messi, although by then there was no questioning who was in charge as he goes in pursuit of his fifth Champions League medal.

At times like this it feels as if he will never stop. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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