For the first few minutes of Tuesday’s Champions League quarterfinal second leg between Barcelona and Manchester United, it looked like the Red Devils might just be able to recapture the magic that allowed them to overcome a two-goal loss at home last month and upset Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16.
Lionel Messi had other ideas. The world’s best player put an end to United’s unlikely Champions League dreams by scoring twice in a four minute span in the first half, sending Barca to a comprehensive 3-0 victory (4-0 on aggregate) and the final four of Europe’s top club competition for the first time since they last hoisted the trophy in 2015.
Here are three quick thoughts on the match:
Manchester United squandered whatever chance it had …
Trailing 1-0 on total goals after losing at Old Trafford in last week’s opener, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team was always going to come out on the front foot. Few could’ve predicted how dominant they would be in the opening minutes of the contest, however.
United had a golden opportunity to pull level on total goals just 30 seconds into the game after Marcus Rashford — who scored the late series winner against PSG from the penalty spot — got behind the hosts’ back line.
But with Rashford being closed down by Barca center back Clement Lenglet he was forced to rush his shot, sending a right-footed toe poke over keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and harmlessly off the top of the crossbar.
The visitors continued to high-press relentlessly; clearly the game plan was to steal an early goal. It almost worked, too, with Barcelona’s all-world back line struggling to play through the pressure.
No goal came, though. What’s more, the strategy left Solskjaer and Co. susceptible to the counter attack. Sure enough, as the minutes ticked by Barca began to exert pressure of their own. With United suddenly on its heels, Fred was whistled for tripping Ivan Rakitic inside the box. Yet United was spared the shot kick after it was determined that the Brazilian won the ball before taking down Rakitic.
If the controversial call felt like an omen, that feeling didn’t last long.
… But Messi was always going to have a monster match
By his otherworldly standards, Messi was uncharacteristically quiet during the first leg. Heading into this one, he was due.
It took just 16 minutes for Messi to ruthlessly punish an Ashley Young turnover and all but seal the outcome then and there. The goal was a gem; first the little Argentine nutmegged Fred before firing one of his patented left-footed drives just inside David de Gea’s post, doubling Barca’s overall advantage:
Moments later, Messi pounced on another giveaway deep in United territory, pulled off another nutmeg, and fired a shot that De Gea somehow let slip right through him:
At that point, it was just a matter of time until Barca added another.
Barca is now the clear favorite to win it all
In truth, Ernesto Valverde’s squad was already the bookies’ pick to hoist the trophy for the fifth time of the Messi era even before Tuesday’s match kicked off. But with fellow European juggernauts such as Bayern Munich and Spanish rival Real Madrid (winner of the last three Champions League titles) already eliminated, and with Juve (and Cristiano Ronaldo) stunned at home by relatively humble Ajax on Tuesday, this year’s event absolutely is Barcelona’s to lose.
The hosts quite obviously stepped off the gas in the second half against Manchester United at the Camp Nou. Yet they still managed to add that third goal on a spectacular individual effort by Philippe Coutinho:
United was a beaten team at that point, sure, and on their way to a fifth loss in their last seven outings. Their defending on Barca’s exclamation point left a lot to be desired.
But Coutinho’s strike still served as an important reminder of the quality, experience and strength in depth that Valverde’s side boasts. It’s simply unmatched by any team still left in the tournament.
Wherever the oddsmakers end up setting the line once the semifinal matchups are determined, know this: Only a fool would bet against Barcelona capturing their first Champions League crown in four years now.