Everything, and a Beach
Following the late drama in Paris we were into the quarter final draw of the Champions League. It’s the real business end of the tournament; with it comes the big names, and they don’t come much bigger than Barcelona. Although domestic rivals Real Madrid have won the trophy for the past three seasons, Barcelona added their fifth title in 2015, having also defeated United in the ’09 and ’11 finals.
Whilst we’ve been to Spain plenty of times in the past few years, including December’s trip to Valencia, we haven’t actually faced Barcelona outside of the final since 2008; a great semi final, won by a Paul Scholes screamer at Old Trafford after a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou. Probably the most in form team in Europe at the moment, Barcelona are sat comfortably ahead in La Liga and will be looking to add another Champions League title. We’ve beaten Juventus and PSG in this year’s competition though, so there’s everything to play for.
Match Ticket Déjà vu
I’ve been recording and writing about the most expensive tickets watching United since last season, after we were stung by Sevilla and then faced considerable hikes in prices for the FA Cup Final. For the third match running, Spanish opposition were looking to charge United fans an inflated, and unregulated, price. Barcelona this time setting another unwanted record, with a £102 (€119) ticket the new ‘most expensive outside of a final’.
It’s a problem that doesn’t seem to be close to a real solution yet, despite UEFA speculating towards a price cap, like in the Premier League, late last year. Whilst the FSE and MUST are fighting the cause, United are trying to counter the trend with a consistent approach; reciprocating the high prices for visiting supporters to subsidise our tickets (to £75 for this game). It’s not an ideal situation, ultimately with both sets of fans caught up in it, but it’s an action to put pressure on these Spanish clubs and hopefully see UEFA intervene soon.
To provide a comparison, my regular season ticket costs £37 each game, with a slight increase for the knockout stages of the Champions League. It went up £5 for the PSG match and another £2 (to £44) for Barcelona. Their fans would normally be charged £52 at the other end of the ground, in the lower tier, whilst Barca feel that a £102 ticket at the back of their third tier is justifiable.
Travelling to Barcelona
There’s usually a lot of choice and reasonable priced flights to Spain; I’ve actually flown to Madrid the past three times we’ve visited and travelled onwards on connecting flights or trains. The options for Barcelona were a little steeper, not helped with our match being played during the Easter holidays. At the time of the draw there were direct flights available from Manchester for around £125, but these quickly doubled, likely due to a few thousand reds all trying to get an early deal. Whilst there were slightly cheaper options via Germany or other parts of Spain, I opted for a direct route from Liverpool John Lennon Airport for £200.
I did similar for the trip to Turin which worked out pretty well, as the £20 return train and bus from Piccadilly takes just over an hour direct to the terminal. There are a lot less flights through LJL each day, so you’re quickly through security to the bar-heavy departure lounge. The coach from Barcelona airport is fairly convenient too, for €10 return, with a drop off at Plaça de Catalunya and onto the city’s metro, again reasonable at €10 for 10 single journeys. All in it cost £230 for travel, a fair bit higher than all my other trips this season, which had worked out around £100 on average.
The City of Barcelona
It’s easy enough to get around Barcelona, and just a few stops from the centre, and a 10 minute walk to the beach, the Travelodge Barcelona Poblenou was a decent place to stay. It worked out slightly cheaper after redeeming a £40 free night from Hotels.com too, one of the better loyalty perks of regular trips abroad.
There’s plenty to see and a lot of history, with the influence of Gaudi all over the city; from the mosaics of Park Güell to the dominant spires of Sagrada Familia. With 10 years of construction still to go it’ll be even grander, but it’s already easy to pick it out, especially from the heights of Tibidabo, which overlooks Barcelona. It’s a half day excursion, but the funicular up the hill to see the Sagrat Cor church is well worth it, even if the adjacent amusement park is a little less impressive.
Being so close to the beach is great, especially in such a big city, as it provides a good alternative to the rabble of Las Ramblas and Plaça Reial, where a lot of United fans gathered for the duration of the trip. We ventured instead down the windy streets of the Gothic quarter, with plenty of open squares for drinking – a reasonable €4 a pint. Barcelona Cathedral is also hidden away here, whilst the Arc de Triomf is a short way away, the gateway to the city’s largest park.
I visited just outside the summer period last September and, like April, the weather is perfect for strolling around all day. There’s so much to see, plenty of Gaudi architecture, and countless bars and tapas restaurants to sit and enjoy the mid-20 degree sun. If Manchester has “everything except a beach” then Barcelona probably has it all.
The Camp Nou is fairly iconic, with the open bowl stadium just shy of a 100,000 capacity, making it’s the largest in Europe. Now Old Trafford is shabby in parts and definitely in need of some work, however it’s glorious in comparison to Barcelona’s ground. A mass of grey concrete, not that dissimilar to a multi storey car park, with the facilities and concourse areas incredibly basic. The away end was no better; situated at the back of the highest tier, with the distant view obscured by perspex and netting. Aside from climb, none of it was that breath-taking.
We went into the match slightly optimistic, if not realistic about our chances. Barcelona are a strong team, who despite being a little less dominant in Europe in recent years, have performed well in the league with a 9 point gap at the top ahead of our game. Our win in Paris, whilst lucky in some respects, was well fought with a solid start and well taken chances. United had to do the same to contain Barcelona and attempt to overcome the first leg defecit. A bright start saw us create a few good chances, with Rashford clipping the bar with a chip in the first few minutes, a clinical finish here could have changed the game.
Gifting mistakes to a team with the quality of Messi and co is asking for trouble, and they made no mistake in taking a 2-0 lead. Ashley Young first gave the ball away and De Gea made a once rare mistake to allow the competition’s top scorer to score twice in the first 20 minutes. United displayed very little for the rest of the game, not matching Barca’s movement or determination. A fine strike from Coutinho sealed the result after just an hour and other than a well-saved diving header from Sanchez in the final minute we were hardly in the game.
The past few seasons have been up and down for United fans, but we’ve always backed the team and manager. It’s disappointing to see so many leaving with half an hour still to play, but those who remained kept the support going, even though it didn’t carry down to the pitch from our spot up in the Gods. It was a frustrating night though, with very little to go away happy about, and the attitude of several players called into question. You expect a big performance from the key players; it’s hard to continue to back the likes of Pogba when they’re so quick to get down the tunnel at full time, though the majority of the team and Ole too acknowledged us.
That was the end of our Champions League adventure for this season, and possibly next given our recent form in the league. After such a strong start under Ole, winning 10 of his first 11 games, our form has nose dived, with 5 defeats in our last 7 games. The honeymoon period is well and truly over, but it’s shocking to see such a lack of effort and poor attitude from the team. We were always going to struggle to beat Barcelona, but it felt like we went out without a fight. It’s likely that a fair few players are on their way out; whatever competition we’re playing in Europe next season we can only hope that the team give it their all and play for Ole, and us supporters as well.
Total travel costs: £230
Miles travelled: 1,798
Accommodation: £71/night (double room – £36pp)
Match ticket: £102 (€119) – subsidised by United to £75
Average cost of pint: £3.65
United allocation: 4,800
Result: Barcelona 3 – United 0 (0-4 on aggregate)
Match played 16/04/19