Ahead of Barcelona’s Champions League trip to Old Trafford, the Catalans’ president has admitted even they could not compete with Manchester United’s then world record offer to bring Paul Pogba back to England in 2016.
“We couldn’t afford that amount of money at the time,” Josep Maria Bartomeu told ESPN.
“So he went to United, and he’s making them better as a team because he’s one of the stars of the world of football right now.”
However, nearly three years on, United can feel they have still to receive sufficient bang for the bucks they paid to Juventus for Pogba in an £89 million ($116 million) transfer fee.
The French World Cup winner will start for just the second time in a Champions League knockout game for United on Wednesday.
Benched for both legs of a bitterly disappointing last 16 exit to Sevilla last season by Jose Mourinho due to personal differences and poor performances, Pogba’s only previous start ended in a red card and a 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain back in February.
Without their suspended star, a youthful United side pulled off a miraculous 3-1 win in Paris to make it to the last eight for the first time in five years and give Pogba another chance to shine on the Champions League stage.
The arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to replace the sacked Mourinho in December removed any excuses that it was the Portuguese’s straitjacket that was limiting the output of one his most talented players.
An upturn in form was immediate. Pogba scored nine goals and created six more in his first 12 games under Solskjaer.
However, his form has cooled since, and not by coincidence so has United’s with three defeats in their last four games.
– Madrid interest? –
Pogba has also not done his approval ratings among the United fans any favours by publicly flirting with Real Madrid while away on international duty last month and talking of his admiration for Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane.
“He’s capable of doing everything. There are midfielders who know how to defend really well, others who are very good in attack. He knows how to do everything,” said Zidane.
There can little better audition for a Madrid target than ending Barca’s bid for a third treble in a decade.
However, United are entitled to want Pogba to show the potential Zidane spoke of on a more regular basis.
For a club steeped in a history of inspirational midfielders such as Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes who demanded the highest standards of themselves and those around them, Pogba is too often hit or miss.
Indeed, there have even been suggestions that United would be wise to cash in if a bid north of £100 million from Madrid materialises this summer, and use the money for the big rebuilding job needed at Old Trafford.
When United and Barca met in the Champions League final in 2009, it was the Red Devils who were pre-match favourites.
Instead, Lionel Messi was on target as Pep Guardiola’s side emerged victorious in Rome, and he struck again when the sides met again in the final two years later.
Messi is still Barca’s inspiration and with him they have made the last eight every season since. By contrast, this is just United’s second quarter-final in the last eight years.
The signing of Pogba was meant to signal United’s return to the elite.
It is time for him to deliver on the biggest stage.