Manchester United managed to stifle Lionel Messi, bloodied and bowed after a nasty first-half injury, but their nemesis Luis Suarez played the pivotal part in the only goal of this Champions League quarter-final first leg.
The Uruguay forward, still unpopular in these parts for his alleged racial abuse of United’s Patrice Evra nearly eight years ago, needed the intervention of VAR before his first-half effort was correctly allowed to stand.
But, despite having now lost four of his last five games, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could take encouragement from the way his spirited side stopped a sub-par Barca from performing, ahead of next week’s return leg in Catalonia.
Given his history with the United faithful, it was no surprise that Suarez’s every touch of the ball was greeted by a chorus of boos by the home support and, in keeping with the nature of such things, equally predictable that the former Liverpool man had a large role in opening the scoring.
It was a goal that underlined the defensive frailties that the early games of Solskjaer’s reign had masked, but which have come to the fore during their recent departure from winning ways.
Veteran Sergio Busquets’ 12th-minute chip into the United area saw the hosts fail to track Messi’s run into the area and, after the Argentinian managed to pivot, his far-post cross was headed across goal by Suarez.
Philippe Coutinho forced the ball “in”, after it had crossed the line, but the actual decisive, final touch came off Luke Shaw who failed to get out of the way of the angled header.
Initially, a linesman’s flag appeared to have saved United, with Suarez a borderline offside decision, although replays — and the VAR now employed in this competition — quickly removed that hope.
But it was a goal that, even allowing for the involvement of the most talented footballer of his era, could still have been prevented by a United side that was facing a task every bit as daunting as the one they had been required to overcome after losing at home to PSG in the last 16.
It was Suarez’s 24th goal of the season, his eighth in the last 10 games, and after an opening in which Barca, as is their custom, had dominated possession, was surely the start of a long night for the Premier League side.
Yet, sublime and other worldly as this Barcelona side can be in possession, they were curiously human and fallible at the back, a fact that the hosts sought to exploit.
Busquets picked up a booking for hauling down the increasingly effective Paul Pogba, and Fred fired a free kick into the wall before Messi’s poor clearance — yes, you read that correctly — fell straight to Ashley Young, who hurried a shot hopelessly wide.
Still, if Messi could make a mistake, perhaps this was not a completely lost cause and when the playmaker suffered a bad facial injury, following a hard-but-fair challenge from Chris Smalling on the half-hour, perhaps United felt they could dare dream.
There was a sobering return to reality after 36 minutes, however, with a Victor Lindelof slip letting in Suarez who set up an opening which allowed Coutinho a shot — superbly saved by David de Gea’s outstretched leg.
Barcelona remained curiously sloppy in possession however — too many unforced errors, particularly at the back, allowing United the ball and a sliver of hope.
The first real chance of the night for Solskjaer’s men came after 40 minutes, the sort of glimmer that they really needed to grasp if they are to advance from their first Champions League quarter-final in half a decade.
Marcus Rashford, who only made the starting line-up after a late recovery from illness, whipped in a far-post cross from the right wing and Diogo Dalot, the young full-back playing in an advanced position, headed hopelessly away from the target and back across goal.
That ensured this would pass as the first time United had failed to record a single shot on target in the first half of a Champions League tie since a meeting with Sporting Lisbon a dozen years ago.
It also helped explain how United had played four home ties in this season’s competition and only managed to find the net once — that through midfielder Marouane Fellaini who isn’t even with the club anymore.
But, for a Barca team that all but wrapped up yet another Spanish league title at the weekend, it had been a sub-par showing and one which would have left manager Ernesto Valverde unhappy at the half-time break — and livid when goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen booted a clearance directly into touch early in the second half.
United, who were now pressing even more enthusiastically than in the first half, took heart and when Young’s cross was punched unconvincingly directly to Rashford — but the England striker should have done better than mis-hit his volley a mile from its intended target.
It was the start of a strong quarter from the home side, plenty of momentum that galvanised support, but one which failed to seriously test ter Stegen.
In fact, Barca might have punished United on the break and taken a real stranglehold on the tie. The excellent Nelson Semedo slipped in Suarez who blasted into the side netting, before Jordi Alba’s near-post shot was well kept out by de Gea.
But by midway through the period Solskjaer made his last throw of the dice with Anthony Martial, who had been warming up virtually the entire half, was thrown into the fray, without the desired result.
MAN UNITED (4-3-3):
De Gea 7; Young 5, Smalling 6, Lindelof 5, Shaw 6; Fred 6, McTominay 7, Pogba 8; Dalot 6 (Lingard 74, 6), Lukaku 5 (Martial 67, 6), Rashford 7 (Pereira 85).
Ter Stegen 6; Semedo 9, Pique 8, Lenglet 6, Alba 7; Arthur 6 (Roberto 65, 6), Busquets 5 (Alena 90), Rakitic 6; Messi 6, Suarez 7, Coutinho 6 (Vidal 65, 6).
Gianluca Rocchi (Italy).