Manchester United suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of five-time European champions Barcelona in the first Quarter-Final leg of their Champions League match-up this week.
Though United failed to register a shot on target for the first time on such an occasion since 2005 (AC Milan in case you were wondering), and now have an almighty task to produce a result at the Nou Camp, there were certainly positives to take from the performance at Old Trafford.
Two stars with widely different backgrounds shone on the stage for the home side in the midweek fixture; midfield duo Scott McTominay and Fred, the former an academy graduate, the second, the only marquee signing of last summer, purchased for a sum of £47million from Shakhtar Donetsk.
Against the Blaugrana, the two operated straddling the club’s record signing Paul Pogba who had yet another unremarkable night in the spotlight and sharing the stage with Lionel Messi.
McTominay produced an extremely accomplished performance, with echoes of Captain Marvel himself Bryan Robson, unintimated by the occasion or the opponent and was duly awarded the Man of the Match award.
The Scotland international won every single one of his defensive aerial duels, as well as each of his tackles attempted on the pressing Barca line. Tenacious across the field, McTominay recovered the ball on five occasions and was responsible for one of the early chances for the hosts after reacting well to a inflying Sergio Busquets tackle.
Similarly, McTominay - in the absence of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, and the suspended Paul Pogba - also commanded attention in March with an impressive showing at the Parc des Princes, as Man Utd made history in overturning a 2-0 deficit to bypass Paris Saint-Germain and through into the reckoning for the Champions League Quarter-Finals.
In the aftermath of the home defeat to Barcelona, the 22-year-old provided an assertive, captain-worthy, summary, whilst remaining hopeful of Man Utd’s chances in the competition;
“I thought in the first ten 15 minutes I thought we showed them far too much respect. It’s just unfortunate that we didn’t get a goal whenever we were on top. Barcelona, they’re a top class team. We just have to do a little bit more in front of goal and that’s up to the whole team to create more chances. We’ve got a big second leg to go and it’s only half-time. We’re Manchester United, you can never write us off.” (manutd.com)
Pogba meanwhile had to deftly deflect questions from the press about prospective moves to Spain in the summer transfer window. The £89million man is the second highest top goalscorer this season for Manchester United, and has been the player with the most goal involvement (25).
Like McTominay though several years his senior, the seemingly often malcontent Frenchman similarly graduated from the Manchester United academy before leaving on a free transfer in 2012 for Juventus, ultimately brought back to Old Trafford in 2016 for a British-record transfer fee.
Granted, Pogba suffered more fouls (six) and created more chances (two) than any other player on the pitch versus Barcelona, however, he hasn’t scored since his brace in the 3-0 away win at Fulham on 9th February.
It may be time for Manchester United to temper placing undiluted faith in their marquee man, and use the example of McTominay - one that Pogba himself could learn from - in affording responsibility elsewhere; wherein lies the tenacity and passion to compete on these grand occasions.