Manchester United’s hopes of more Champions League glory were dashed by Barcelona at the quarter-final stage, as Lionel Messi’s brilliance proved to be the difference at the Nou Camp.
Trailing 1-0 from last week’s first leg at Old Trafford, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men started brightly in front of a packed house in Catalonia – and it could have been a different story if Marcus Rashford’s effort had found the net and not hit the crossbar in the opening 40 seconds. But two goals in the space of four first-half minutes from Barca captain Messi put the hosts firmly in control of the tie, before Philippe Coutinho’s strike in the second half sealed their progression to the semi-finals.
Solskjaer, returning to the scene of his best moment as a player 20 years ago when he scored the winner against Bayern Munich to clinch our unprecedented Treble, named an attacking line-up which boasted four changes from Saturday’s 2-1 home win against West Ham. Victor Lindelof, captain Ashley Young, Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford came into the starting XI, as Ole sprung a tactical surprise by starting Lindelof at right-back. Luke Shaw, whose unfortunate own goal gave Barca their first-leg advantage, travelled but missed out through suspension.
Barcelona rested 10 first-team players, including Messi and Sergio Busquets, as they failed to score for the first time in 11 games in a goalless draw at bottom-club Huesca in La Liga last Saturday. Head coach Ernesto Valverde made just one change from the first leg, with Sergi Roberto replacing Nelson Semedo at right-back.
Scott McTominay battles for the ball with Philippe Coutinho.
Backed by just under 5,000 fans high up in one of world football’s most iconic venues, United will undoubtedly have taken inspiration from our magnificent comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16, when we scored inside two minutes. It was almost an even quicker breakthrough this time when, after just 34 seconds, Rashford latched onto an inch-perfect Fred pass and was desperately unlucky to see his poked shot from a tight angle come back off the crossbar.
Moments later, McTominay – who was voted our Man of the Match in the first leg by fans – was then played in through the middle but the ball just ran away from him and Barcelona, clearly unnerved by our fast opening, frantically cleared their lines.
There was a huge moment in the 11th minute when Barcelona were initially awarded a penalty, as Fred was adjudged to have tripped Ivan Rakitic in the box. But, after a review by the Video Assistant Referee and a check on the pitchside monitor, German referee Felix Brych overturned his decision.
However, the hosts took the lead on the night and increased their aggregate advantage just five minutes later. Shortly after Anthony Martial tested Marc-Andre Ter Stegen from outside the box at the other end, Rakitic closed down Young and Messi picked up the loose ball before advancing towards goal and curling a shot into the bottom corner beyond David De Gea’s reach.
The Spanish champions were clearly lifted as a result and it got worse for United four minutes later, with Messi again illustrating his world-class ability. The Barca no.10 took the ball up outside the box before squeezing a shot from 20 yards past De Gea, who will be disappointed to have seen the ball squirm underneath him.
Messi had an opportunity to seal his hat-trick on 25 minutes when he latched onto Jordi Alba’s cutback but rifled a half-volley over the crossbar. After a thrilling start to proceedings amid an electric atmosphere, the pace slowed down somewhat as half-time approached.
Paul Pogba took aim from 25 yards with a low shot which called Ter Stegen into action, and Rashford saw a free-kick from 22 yards well blocked after Pogba was fouled. At the other end, Rakitic’s flicked header from a Messi free-kick was kept out by De Gea, who then produced an instinctive save at his near post to deny Sergi Roberto from Alba’s cross just before the break.
United were sent out for the second half early by Ole, who opted against making any alterations at the interval. Barcelona started the half on the front foot as Messi saw an effort from Luis Suarez’s cutback blocked well by Young for a corner.
Solskjaer’s men kept battling but any hopes of another European comeback were extinguished just after the hour-mark by a sublime strike from Coutinho, who curled an effort into the top corner of the net from outside the box.
Chris Smalling in action on a disappointing night for the Reds.
Diogo Dalot entered the fray in place of Martial and Romelu Lukaku came on for the 50th European appearance of his career, with Rashford making way, as Ole opted to bring on fresh legs.
Lingard came close to pulling a goal back with a fierce drive from 25 yards which whistled narrowly over Ter Stegen’s crossbar, moments before making way for the introduction of Alexis Sanchez. The no.7 made his comeback from a few weeks out with a knee injury against his former club.
The Chilean almost marked his return to the Nou Camp by getting on the scoresheet but his header from Dalot’s inviting cross was clawed away for a corner by Ter Stegen. At the other end, De Gea made a sharp stop to beat away a powerful drive from Messi.
United have experienced some memorable moments in the Champions League this season but our journey came to an end on a disappointing night for the Reds, whose sole focus is now on securing a place in next season’s competition with a top-four finish in the Premier League, with the battle continuing on Sunday against Everton at Goodison Park (kick-off 13:30 BST).