There was no miracle comeback last night for Ole Gunner Solakjaer and Manchester United, 20 years on from his greatest day in football and one round on from that famous victory against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League last 16.
Instead, at an electric and pulsating Camp Nou, all there was for the new United manager was an appointment with the greatest footballer of his generation, Lionel Messi, and an effortless Barcelona
victory and a possible semi date with Liverpool.
Messi scored twice, taking his tally in the competition this season to 10, his 109th and 110th career Champions League goals and a brace that means he has now scored 597 times for the famous Catalan club.
The maestro might have reached the 600 mark last night, given his indomitable, peerless performance, but instead he was satisfied with laying on a third for Philippe Coutinho — a far cry from Messi’s disappointing first leg performance at Old Trafford.
Pre-match, the fact United have never won at the Nou Camp was offset by Solskjaer’s personal relationship with the stadium, where his winning goal won the Champions League for the club in 1999.
And, in keeping with that history, Solskjaer had promised an aggressive, front-foot start from his team and that is precisely what they delivered.
In fact, the visitors should have been in front inside the opening 30 seconds, a sumptuous through ball from Paul Pogba paying Marcus Rashford clear in the box and the England forward toe-poking a shot which clipped the top of the bar with Marc-Andre ter-Stegen beaten.
Scott McTominay miscontrolled with the goal at his mercy, Jesse Lingard caused confusion in the home defence, Anthony Martial’s shot was blocked by Gerard Pique and, by the time United won their first corner, the home crowd were whistling their disapproval.
And all that in the opening 10 minutes which seemed to vindicate Solskjaer’s decision to leave Romelu Lukaku on the bench and start with a more mobile front three but it was something of a phoney war, of course, and one which history would prove Barca were quite content to weather.
The warning was there from Barca’s first real attack, after 10 minutes, when German referee Felix Brych pointed to the spot when Ivan Rakitic went down under a challenge from Fred in the United area.
It was a questionable call and one which VAR quickly reversed but the reprieve was brief, the tie all but over within the next 10 minutes.
Messi had been widely criticised for his display in the first leg, a 1-0 Barca win which saw the Argentinian way below his sublime best, not least after taking a painful, bloody blow to the face from Chris Smalling.
He was not a man who needed motivation or provocation but, if he did, it would have come from the knowledge that he had failed to deliver on the Old Trafford stage. Thanks to some dismal defending and woeful goalkeeping from United, that was all about to change.
After 16 minutes, Ashley Young lost possession unnecessarily in the right-back position, Messi took up the charged down ball and cut in, beating Young and Fred with minimal effort on his way to goal.
Phil Jones backed off, an understandable but fatal error that presented space to Messi who eventually curled an unstoppable left-foot finish past the diving David de Gea into the far left corner.
It was not yet a disaster — yet. The away goal the Catalans had claimed in Manchester had meant that United would need at least two in the Camp Nou in any case, but there was no margin for further error. Unfortunately, it took United and De Gea just four minutes to produce the gravest error possible.
Fred again lost the ball in a dangerous position 30 yards from goal with Messi collecting it and advancing to the edge of the United area where he unleashed a 20-yard shot which, by his immaculate standards, disappointed.
So, too, did De Gea. The ball was struck directly — and weakly — at the keeper but as the United number one dived down, he allowed the ball to squirm beneath his body and over the line.
It was a punch to the gut for United whose strong 10-minute opening was now in the distant past, the stadium buoyant, the Barcelona players suddenly showing a swagger and confidence that had been sorely lacking in last week’s first leg.
Had Messi scored his hat-trick, five minutes later, shooting over at the end of a flowing move and Jordi Alba cut back, the tie could have turned ugly, and embarrassing, for the English side.
As it was, Messi seemed content almost to toy with his victims thereafter, notably in first half injury-time when he turned the hapless Jones on the halfway line then nutmegged him on his way upfield before finding Alba whose far-post cross should have been turned in by Sergi Roberto but was, instead, well blocked by De Gea.
The second half opened with Messi still in the mood to make his point although, as he attempted to place Alba’s early square ball into the United net, Young blocked.
Finally, after 61 minutes, a brilliant long ball from Messi was cushioned skilfully by Alba for Coutinho to send a spectacular 25-yard shot flying into the top corner of the United goal.
Messi came close to his hat-trick, with an audacious bicycle kick and a late shot, but Barca were in compete control, United were spent, and Solskjaer left with little to do other than run out time and give Alexis Sanchez his first taste of action in six weeks with the Chilean almost scoring an injury-time consolation from a header.
ter Stegen 7; Roberto 7 (Semedo 71, 6), Piquet 6, Lenglet 6, Alba 9; Rakitic 7, Busquets 7, Arthur 8 (Vidal 75, 6); Messi 10, Suarez 7, Coutinho 7 (Dembele 81).
MAN UNITED (4-3-3):
De Gea 5; Lindelof 6, Smalling 6, Jones 5,Young 4; McTominay 5, Fred 4, Pogba 6; Rashford 6 (Lukaku 73, 6), Lingard 6 (Sanchez 80), Martial 5 (Dalot 65, 6).
Dr. Felix Brych (Germany) 7.