If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new-look Manchester United needed a calibration to measure how far they have come since Jose Mourinho departed then this match, despite the result, should leave them standing tall.
Eight years after Lionel Messi’s Barcelona side marked the beginning of the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson era by demolishing United 3-1 in the Champions League Final at Wembley, United’s belligerence against the current version is not to be under-estimated given where they were just six months ago.
A Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona presents the kind of challenge that even Ferguson’s great sides failed to master on occasion, not least that final in 2011 when they were out-classed by a Messi-inspired team that looked not just one or two notches above their rivals on the football scale but, rather, on a different planet.
They lost to the same team in the final in 2009, of course, this time Xavi the hero, so going out to the Catalan side in this year’s last eight would be no disgrace; and that is by no means certain to happen just yet with a second leg to come and Barca carrying only a narrow advantage.
Yes, the Catalans remain favourites to go through and, yes, their style of football is easier on the eye and, even with Messi in a deeper role, they are a formidable presence.
But it’s wrong to expect United to play like Barca or even like City. That’s not their heritage or their way. What you want from United is passion, drive, exciting attacking football which gets the crowd on their feet and a mental strength never to give up.
That, more than anything else is what was missing under Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, and that is the gift which Solsjkaer has given back to their loyal fans – even if he knows improvements will have to be made this summer to reach a level Sir Alex would have been happy with.
So, when Barca had 90 per cent of possession at one stage of this match and Twitter was purring with football purists suggesting the La Liga giants were once again on a different planet to United, nobody inside Old Trafford was getting so carried away.
They could see that Barca, despite the statistics, were being hurried by United’s high press, that they were uncharacteristically giving the ball away, that Sergio Busquets is no longer at his best and that the visitors were even forced to resort to the occasional hoofed clearance.
If you’re a Barcelona fan maybe you call that pragmatic; if you’re a United supporter you can rightly claim that the Premier League team were posing their opponents some serious questions and by no means out of the tie whatever the heat maps showed.
The second half proved that as United built up a head of steam, and even if they don’t yet have the quality or ruthlessness up front to take full advantage there was plenty to be encouraged about.
David de Gea, of course, was important as he made two excellent saves and, inevitably, the visitors created chances. But United’s defence, lambasted earlier in the season, held out well in a match in which Messi, playing very deep, was not able to have the kind of impact he has in previous games between the sides.
Put this game side by side with the final of 2011 and it was far, far closer with only occasional signs of Barcelona’s underlying dominance, even if United’s attacking threat, ultimately, didn’t have the precision required to take the next step – and even if Barca’s current side cannot match the giddy heights of their predecessors..
Most United fans were realisticv about the difficulty of the task in this first leg tie, even if Barca arrived in Manchester having never won at Old Trafford before. Not because of the history between the clubs but because of how the campaign began for their own side and the realisation that United have a long way to go no matter how glossy the season has become under Solskjaer.
They could still remember the pain of a miserable goalless draw against Valencia last October and, just as bad, the 1-0 group stage defeat against Juventus in which the scoreline fails to portray just how Mourinho’s side were outplayed.
So although those memories have been somewhat gilded by more recent successes, there was no major surprise inside Old Trafford when Barca had so much possession in the first 12 minutes and took the lead – and no lessening of the resolve of the Stretford End to support their team to the bitter end. That in itself is a major change and one which cannot be underestimated as they prepare to travel to Spain for the second leg.
Victories in Turin and Paris should give United hope, but so should the performance here because, despite the possession stats, Barca were also wasteful and struggled to impose their style on the game.
Solskjaer made it clear in his matchday programme notes he dreams of going to the same stadium where he won the European Cup in 1999 and recreating that winning feeling to reach the semi-final.
The chances remain slim, of course, given Barca’s record at the Nou Camp. But, nevertheless, there is hope. And who could possibly have predicted that six months ago?