The day started brightly for Manchester United's travelling band of fans. About 4,600 of them descended on Barcelona on Tuesday for the club's second-leg quarter-final tie against Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League.
They sang and drank in the city's terrace bars and squares, including Placa Reial off La Rambla, before making their way to the Camp Nou, several of them by rickshaw up Diagonal, the avenue that General Franco used to march his victorious nationalist troops into the city at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Outside the stadium, United supporters clustered in groups—in shorts and light replica shirts, oblivious to the unseasonably cold evening weather—singing confidently to the tune of the Stone Roses' "Waterfall" about their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer: "Ole's at the wheel/Tell me, how good does it feel?" Some haggled for last-minute tickets, which were going for around €200, in the hope they'd drop to €150 or €170 closer to kick-off.
Barca's hardcore fans congregated outside the apartment blocks along Travessera de les Corts, a winding street below the stadium. Pogoing and spraying cans of beer skyward, they went through their most popular repertoire of songs, including a couple of anti-Real Madrid numbers. Blue-and wine-coloured smoke billowed overhead from the flares they let off.
Inside the Camp Nou, the stadium announcer led fans through a version of the converted Italian disco hit "L'Estate Sta Finendo"—known universally to football fans by its chant "Allez! Allez! Allez!"—10 minutes before the match started. Behind the south-end goal, Barcelona's fans unfurled a huge, cocky "WALKING TO GLORY" tifo in the club's colours.
Over beside the scoreboard along the halfway line, a big yellow banner calling for "LLIBERTAT" (freedom)—in particular the exoneration of political prisoners who are on trial in Madrid—was displayed. This banner has become customary at Camp Nou games during the last few years of political turmoil in Catalonia, a portion of which is agitating for independence.
The attendance for the match was a record for the season—96,708, more than the 93,265 who watched Barcelona's 5-1 defeat of Real Madrid in La Liga back in October that sealed the fate of Los Blancos coach Julen Lopetegui. In the VIP box, a host of former star players, including Rivaldo and Patrick Kluivert, sat alongside Johan Cruyff's wife, Danny, and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Barcelona fielded 10 of the 11 players who started the first leg, with Sergi Roberto deputising for Nelson Semedo at right-back in the only change. Manchester United went for a fast, attacking trident up front—Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard starting alongside Marcus Rashford—attempting to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg.
Buoyed by some impressive away wins this season—including those over Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Arsenal domestically, as well as Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain in European competition—Manchester United, who had never defeated Barcelona at the Camp Nou, came in hope. They were, after all, returning to the scene of their most dramatic success—the 1999 UEFA Champions League final comeback win against Bayern Munich, in which Solskjaer scored the winning goal in injury time.
United started gamely, Barcelona nervously. Before a Barca player had touched the ball, United carved open their defence for Rashford to graze the crossbar. The opening 10 minutes saw the visitors back Barcelona onto the ropes. One stretch of keep-ball in the third minute was enough to incite disgruntled whistles around the ground, but then Leo Messi got going. In four minutes, he killed the tie.
Barca fans have seen him score the first goal, which came in the 16th minute, so many times. He cut in from the right wing, nutmegging Fred en route to goal before dispatching a shot low into the corner of the net from outside the box. Within seconds, deep, groaning chants of "MESSI! MESSI! MESSI!" rose up from the belly of the stadium.
Messi's second goal a few minutes later will forever haunt Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea. Picking up the ball from broken play, Messi ran straight toward goal and United's remaining three covering defenders. As they backed off, he surprised De Gea by shooting with his weaker right foot. De Gea fell on the ball but inconceivably let it squirm underneath him into the goal.
As his teammates went to take the restart, De Gea stood hunched over, his hands cupping his kneecaps in mental turmoil. It was enough for Barca's fans to put the knife in, chanting: "De Gea, how bad are you?" It was an error that "recalled his worst nightmares in the Spanish team," as Julian Ruiz wrote in El Mundo, alluding to last summer's performances at the FIFA World Cup finals in Russia.
Paul Pogba, too, endured a difficult night on his first visit to the Camp Nou. Fans booed him when he ballooned an early, long-range attempted lob over Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s bar. In Mundo Deportivo’s player ratings, he was criticised for disappearing in the second half like his teammates.
One of the biggest cheers of the night went up early in the second half, when word filtered through that Matthijs de Ligt, who is seen as a likely Barcelona target in the summer, scored what turned out to be Ajax's winning goal against Juventus in the other night's quarter-final tie.
It was something that Sergio Busquets, who enjoyed another imperious night in Barcelona's engine room, remarked on after the game: "I heard a racket coming from the stands and I looked at the scoreboard and I could see that Ajax had scored."
The felling of Juventus almost 900 kilometres away in Turin means the end of the storyline that has been playing out in Spain: a possible final between Messi's Barca and Ronaldo's Juve. "Messi, si; Cristiano, no" wrote Santi Nolla's in his post-match editorial piece for Mundo Deportivo, with the newspaper's director concluding that Ronaldo has now "said goodbye to the Ballon d'Or."
The plaudits for Messi's part in the team's 3-0 win have been endless. Diario Sport gave him 10 out of 10 in its player ratings, with the next-closest player scoring a seven. Writing in El Pais, Ramon Besa reckoned he was "an angel among devils." He took his goal-scoring tally in the UEFA Champions League this season to 10 goals and is on target to finish as the competition's top scorer for the sixth time.
One of the game's big talking points was Philippe Coutinho's goal celebration. The 26-year-old Brazilian has had a troubled season since picking up an injury earlier in the campaign against Inter Milan. He has struggled to regain his starting place in the team, suffering from a dip in confidence and the wrath of Barcelona's demanding fanbase, who expect more from the most expensive signing in the club's history.
Redemption came last night on the hour mark, when he snapped a curling, trademark shot from outside the box into the top corner of De Gea's net. After celebrating with his teammates, he stood and faced his own fans, making "an ugly gesture," according to Diario Sport. Cupping his fingers in his ears, he uttered the words: "A tomar por culo! (Up yours)."
Team-mate Clement Lenglet defended him afterwards in the mixed zone, saying he didn't care about Coutinho's celebration. All that mattered was that he scored. "He's got balls," the Frenchman said emphatically.
A more joyous moment occurred closer to the final whistle, when Solskjaer put on Alexis Sanchez as a substitute. Sanchez was returning to the club where he had spent three seasons, including Tito Vilanova's historic 100-point, league-winning season in 2012-2013. The Camp Nou gave the Chilean a warm welcome.
Barcelona has laid to rest a ghost. After three consecutive quarterfinal defeats, Messi, in his first season as captain, has returned the club to the semi-finals for the 16th time in their history. Liverpool or Porto await. Barca also extended their unbeaten UEFA Champions League record at home to 31 games. You have to go back to 2013 when they last lost at the Camp Nou—a semi-final defeat to Bayern Munich. Notably Messi missed the game through injury.
"This Year, Yes," wrote Diario Sport for its cover-page headline over a picture of a leaping Messi punching the air in delight after scoring his first goal. The phrase is a play on the title of a song ("Aquest any, si!") released by Michael Laudrup and several of Barcelona's Dream Team in 1991.
With another league title inevitable and a domestic cup final already lined up, it's beginning to feel that way. Certainly, if Messi keeps deciding it so.
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