This time there was no Manchester United Champions League miracle at the Camp Nou as the magic of Lionel Messi and the visitors’ mistakes helped Barcelona cruise into the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Twenty years on from scoring the goal that crowned United champions of Europe in Catalonia, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was shown the long road ahead if he is to guide the Red Devils back to those heights again.
Messi scored twice, the second of which owed much to a handling error from David de Gea. The final blow was delivered by a former Liverpool player, Philippe Coutinho, as Barca won 3-0 on Tuesday night and 4-0 on aggregate.
“We have said all along that this isn’t going to change overnight and the next few years will be massive for us to get to the level of Barcelona,” admitted Solskjaer.
The Norwegian has been handed a three-year contract to bridge that gap, but the timing of tying down Solskjaer late last month now looks questionable.
A wonderful run as a caretaker, capped by coming from 2-0 down to beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 in the French capital to progress on away goals in the last 16, made Solskjaer’s case for the job on a permanent basis hard to ignore.
However, five defeats in seven games have followed what now looks even more of a freak result in Paris.
Moreover, the two games United did win in that run were highly unconvincing 2-1 victories at home to Watford and West Ham. After the latter last weekend, Solskjaer admitted his side “got away with it.”
“It did not take the wondrous talents of Lionel Messi to show the scale of rebuilding necessary for this Manchester United squad,” wrote The Times.
“Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United have done that easily enough in recent weeks.”
United now face a challenge just to make the Champions League next season.
Sitting sixth in the Premier League, they have five games to make up ground on Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea to claim a top-four finish.
Solskjaer must immediately raise the spirits and standards of his squad to keep United in top over the next 10 days.
A tricky trip to Everton, who have beaten Chelsea and Arsenal in the previous two home games, awaits on Sunday before title-chasing Manchester City and Chelsea visit Old Trafford next week.
However, there are, it seems, few players Solskjaer can depend on.
— Anonymous display —
Captain Ashley Young was at fault for Messi’s opener and is symptomatic of United’s wasted millions in the six years since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. A 33-year-old converted right winger, plugged in at left-back, was always likely to struggle against the five-time Ballon d’Or winner.
“United fielded a team of mix-and-match defensive parts. Four of the back five were brought to the club by Sir Alex Ferguson, who has, for all the fond nods and sighs, been gone quite a long time now,” wrote The Guardian.
Paul Pogba did little to spark more admiring glances from Real Madrid at the Camp Nou with another anonymous display when needed most by United.
Even De Gea, so often the saviour in the ruin of the post-Ferguson years, this time let his side down.
“We did well to get here,” added Solskjaer in a desperate attempt to spin a positive line, but ultimately highlighting what is United’s new reality.
“We have got a rebuilding job, but that starts with the coaches and the players and one or two additions to the squad will happen in the summer.”
For a club that likes to boast about its wealth, but has failed to make the Champions League semi-finals in eight years, just one or two signings would be window dressing.