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Manchester United suffer a mighty fall after Champions League thumping at Barcelona

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Manchester United suffer a mighty fall as Champions League thumping at Barcelona proves need for a clearoutManchester United are still searching for their true identity after Barcelona loss Lionel Messi hit a first-half double before Philippe Coutinho added a thirdIf this was a free hit, Man United spent night seeking to avoid embarrassment This team are not without talent or potential but match-winners looked green

So, the search for the true identity of this Manchester United team goes on. Is it the miserable, listing version presented in the second half of Jose Mourinho’s reign, or the resurgent side of youth and promise in the early days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time?

The truth is probably to be found somewhere between the two and, once again, that looks to be far from good enough.

This was supposed to represent a free hit for Solskjaer and his United players. Nobody expected them to reach this stage of the competition and, after Barcelona’s Luis Suarez had scored early in the first leg at Old Trafford, even fewer expected them to still be in the tie by the time the teams reconvened here. 

Manchester United are still searching for their true identity after their Champions League exit

Lionel Messi struck a first-half double for Barcelona to dump Manchester United out

But if this was a night to turn up and roll the dice, it never felt like it. Instead, United spent most of this game seeking to avoid embarrassment and, by the end, it all looked rather pitiful.

Barca — driven on once again by Lionel Messi after his inconsequential night in England last week — scored three times and could have inflicted greater damage. United, for their part, had three shots on target, which was three more than they had managed last week at least.

This really was the most feeble of efforts by United and now we can see their victory in Paris in the quarter-final for the act of good fortune that it was.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has much to do if he is to take his club back to the upper echelons

United will not win a trophy this season and they did not win one last time round either. That represents a drought by their standards and, with that in mind, it is worth reflecting on their last visit to this great stadium 11 years ago.

The last time United were here, two notable things happened. Central defender Nemanja Vidic — a hugely important figure in the team — spent the night before the semi-final first leg in hospital and could not play. On the field, Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty.

Both are events that stick in the memory, but it is equally important to recall the strength of the United side who drew 0-0 that night and went on to win the competition after edging the second game thanks to a lone Paul Scholes goal.

Paul Scholes' goal helped Manchester United edge past Barcelona on last visit to Nou Camp

The 2007-08 vintage was not the best United team of the Ferguson era. Far from it. But it had strength and character in the shape of Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, and match-winning quality in Scholes, Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. A player of the substance of Ryan Giggs started the night on the bench.

Maybe that tells us about what the United of today looks like and indeed how much Solskjaer has to do if he is to take his club to the upper echelons of the European game again.

This United team are not without talent or potential. But their match-winners — Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard — have a greenhorn look about them, while the players brought to the club to bridge the gap between United and the rest — such as Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez — were not deemed reliable enough for the starting line-up here.

Marcus Rashford (L) and Jesse Lingard are match-winners but have a greenhorn look

United have made mistakes when it comes to hiring managers since the Ferguson years. Arguably, they have made bigger ones in terms of the players they have bought. Managers can be easily replaced but players cannot.

So, to this mountainous challenge in the Nou Camp. This is not the greatest Barcelona team in memory, but even playing modestly they were good enough to win 1-0 in Manchester last week.

As such, United needed something exceptional here and the only thing that gave them any hope was that they had somehow pulled off a similar feat in winning at PSG last month.

That night, United started the game wonderfully as a PSG error allowed Lukaku to score almost immediately.

As it turned out, that incident set a rather kamikaze pattern from which United ultimately benefited.

Here, it almost happened again. Barcelona began this game in very anxious fashion and United could have scored twice in the first two minutes.

First Rashford poked a shot against the top of the bar after being set free down the left, then Scott McTominay failed to gather a pass from Rashford that would have presented him with the goal to aim at from 12 yards.

David de Gea let in a weak Lionel Messi shot but also produced a stunning point-blank save

At this stage there was uncertainty in the air but it didn’t last long. United failed to keep the ball well enough and presented Messi with two shooting chances. The first effort was too good for any goalkeeper in the world while the second — the crucial second — was so weak that David de Gea’s cat would have saved it.

Both went in and, had de Gea not somehow kept out Sergi Roberto’s point-blank effort after the move of the first half just before the break, then United would have been staring at humiliation.

That soon became a possibility nevertheless, and once Philippe Coutinho had scored the kind of majestic goal he used to thump home for Liverpool, United were staring over the edge of the cliff.

Barcelona will face Liverpool in their Champions League semi-final if the Merseyside club prevail against Porto on Wednesday. Liverpool will fancy their chances in a way that United never did.

Another sign, perhaps, of how the football landscape has changed.

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