Given Manchester United’s indifferent form of late, coupled with the superior and undoubted quality of Ernesto Valverde’s flamboyant FC Barcelona, it is fair to say that most across the football world expected the Catalan giants to unleash an unprecedented bloodbath at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
As the two giants of the European game walked on to the hallowed Old Trafford turf, even I, myself, a staunch Red Devil, expected no less than three unanswered net rippers to fly past our Spanish net-minder David de Gea in the first half alone.
A sluggish start by the home side, which saw Barca customarily dominate proceedings with their slick passing and dangerous movement, suggested that the expected bloodbath was about to be administered in earnest.
Fears of the looming massacre in front of a sold-out Theatre of Dreams were compounded further when Luis Suarez nodded goalwards from an acute angle, before the ball deflected off Luke Shaw and nestled in De Gea’s net on 12 minutes, handing the visitors a deserved 1-0 lead.
However, from there on, those fears were allayed as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s charges exuded bravery, pressing Valverde’s men higher up the pitch with increasingly decent success as the first half wore on.
The United that emerged from the interval was even more determined to be right in the faces of the fluorescent green-clad Blaugrana, and turned the match into a fight that the Catalans, at times, seemed unsure how to handle.
Although not anywhere near the legendary United centreback pairings of yore, the central defensive duo of Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof hardly put a foot wrong as they tracked, and scurried, Luis Suarez and the incomparable Lionel Messi’s every move.
The second half saw industrious displays from the midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Scott ‘McSauce’ McTominay and Fred, which ensured that United kept gnawing away at the five-time European champions’ desire to dominate the ball at will.
Fred, the 5-foot-7 Brazilian, has for most parts of this campaign struggled to showcase the sort of form that saw United fork out £52 million to lure him away from Ukrainian super club Shakhtar Donetsk in June 2018.
However, last night, as he had shown in United’s unlikely 3-1 last-16 comeback triumph against Paris Saint-Germain, he appeared a man reborn against the imperious Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Arthur Melo.
Although in the end United could only account for 38 percent of the ball throughout the match, on those occasions that the Red Devils enjoyed spells of ball possession, the stocky Brazilian was always available to receive the ball in space and move it on to the next man in red.
Alongside him, McTominay also displayed a calm and composure many would not have expected against the decorated and hugely experienced Busquets and Rakitic.
The Scottish international’s assured and tactically astute performance belied his 22 years and relative inexperience in knockout stage football in Europe’s premier club competition.
Let's talk about @McTominay10 💬— Manchester United (@ManUtd) April 11, 2019
➖ Ole: "Scott can run all day long, he wins challenges and he's quick on his feet."
➖ @LukeShaw23: "Scott was one of our best players tonight."
How would you rate the #MUFC midfielder's recent performances? pic.twitter.com/vN1Ja6ErUr
Fred and McTominay’s tireless industry allowed the £89 million Pogba to focus on getting on to the ball and forging chances for United forwards Marcus Rashford and the burly Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian used his massive frame well to keep Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet occupied whenever the ball was flighted to him or played to his feet.
Lukaku dovetailed impressively with his strike partner, the fleet-footed Rashford, who hardly gave the shaky looking duo a breather with his incessant desire to press and limit Barca’s build-up play from the back.
United did enjoy a few chances, from set-pieces, from which they could have snatched a meaningful result heading into next week Tuesday’s second leg at the majestic Camp Nou.
Rashford, for all his boundless energy and total devotion to the cause, will have to polish his free kick-taking skills if he hopes to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen with his knuckle-ball free kicks that on two occasions ballooned into the stands instead of past the German shot-stopper last night.
On the whole, it was far from a polished and vintage United performance.
In any case, very few teams can be accused of producing such against Messi and company, but there definitely is no doubting the fighting spirit from this crop of United players.
They did not embarrass themselves one bit, nor did they bring shame on the prestigious history of the football club as they fought toe to toe with a truly superior opponent.
In Catalonia, chances will be as few and far between as they were in Manchester, if not even less.
Those rare chances will have to be clinically dispatched if Solskjaer is to enjoy yet another career-defining night under the Catalan night sky.
This time he will have to do it through tactical nous and wit from the managerial dugout almost 20 years on from that unforgettable Champions League final last-gasp winner against Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Bayern Munich.
* Samkelo Mtshali is a political reporter for Independent Media in KZN, and enjoys watching and writing about football.@Sam_Blaszczy6