Dundee United 1 Buaben 26 Barcelona 5 Henry 27; Messi 54, 76, 79; Eto'o 61
BEFORE the match even kicked off there was talk of this one being a game of two halves. Barcelona, apparently deciding against the stop-start changes associated with pre-season friendlies, opting instead to name one XI for the first half and another for the second 45 minutes.
As it turned out, they settled for eight changes but it was the introduction of Lionel Messi after the interval which ensured the second period bore little resemblance to the first. A hat-trick and more trickery than could be stuffed into a top hat redefined the match.
Nine minutes after entering the fray he carved out his own scoring opening. Cutting in from the right-hand side and bursting across the box, although Lee Wilkie got a boot in, when it broke back into the path of the magical playmaker, he showed a thrilling surge of pace to scamper into space and then drive a low, angular shot beyond Michael McGovern. It was the beginning of the end for United.
By that stage it was 1-1 and United had been worthy of that scoreline but, come the final whistle, the score had a very different complexion. In the 76 minute, the Argentinian star had netted his second after a beautiful one-two with Samuel Eto'o, his volley into the net worthy of his reputation.
However, it is not all flair – there is a tenacity to the player as well, which renders him even more of a complete package. In the 79th minute, he refused to give up and despite a sea of tangerine shirts, he managed to wade through the mayhem, creating the space to shoot from fairly close range and drilling the ball through the legs of Lee Wilkie, who had back-tracked to the line. The only thing missing from the retreat was the white handkerchief. If the big defender had waved it, it would have been understandable, such was the merciless onslaught being conjured up by the Spanish side the longer the match progressed.
While Barcelona had thrown on substitutes of equal or arguably a better class than the players who had started, with Eto'o, Toure, Pique and Pinto also coming on at the interval, a tiring United side had no such luxuries on their bench.
For 45 minutes, though, the Tannadice outfit had done what Hibernian had failed to on Thursday night for any concerted period. They held their own, even surprising the Catalan side by taking the lead in the 26th minute.
The advantage may have been short-lived but it was enough to cheer the home support. If the Hibs fans could be forgiven for using their hands to hide behind as one goal after another left them embarrassed, the United supporters put theirs to more positive use, applauding their side's endeavour and ingenuity.
While Barcelona were always attractive to watch, their passing and movement reflective of their renowned style, Dundee United were not glaringly out-classed during that crucial opening period. They were more organised than the Edinburgh side had been, and more composed when they were presented with their own breaks. But then again, they hadn't been battered by the class of Messi before they even had a chance to bunker down.
The mercurial Argentinian had been an absentee when these two teams met at Tannadice in the build-up to last season and he only appeared in the second half of this one. It was a telling difference.
To begin with, the priority for United was simply keeping their own goal intact. Like Hibs before them, they too conceded corner after corner in the opening phase but that was as close as Barcelona got to a goal at that stage. And United had their own forays forward. In the fourth minute – the same time Hibs had conceding the first of their six – United were actually venturing upfield in search of a goal of their own.
Prince Buaben, who was to have a marvellous match, popping up all over the park to aid defence and attack played the ball through to John Daly and while he had options to take it on himself or slide it through, he delayed the ball through the defence a fraction too long and the move ended with the linesman's flag and an offside ruling. But it gave Barcelona a clue that United were determined to prove they were more than cameo players.
For a while they were. In that first half Warren Feeney broke in, and John Daly may have troubled Valdes had Martin Caceres not made a latch ditch tackle. But at the other end, Barcelona were always a danger. In the 16th minute only a combination of the back post and Buaben prevented Gudjohnsen's header from yet another corner finding the net.
But United were revelling in the work-out, doing the dirty work, chasing and harrying without losing their discipline or shape and when in possession they adhered to the passing principals of their guests, pressing forward and taking the game to them when the space or openings materialised.
Having denied Gudjohnsen at one end, Buaben gave him a run for his money at the other before being edged off the ball. But the big mistake was the United's fans jeering of Thierry Henry when he sent one chance off target.
Less than a minute after Buaben had opened the scoring, Wilkie's inability to clear his lines gifted the Frenchman, not one shot but two chances. If the initial close-range strike was blocked, the rebound fell kindly and allowed him to bury the follow up.
That was it until the Barca reshuffle. And while it soon became the Messi show after that, as the afternoon developed into the torturous affair most knew it could become, there was others contributing.
Before linking with Messi for Barcelona's fourth goal, Eto'o had weighed in with a goal of his own. That was in the 61st minute. By then United had made mass changes of their own and Andis Shala, on in the 57th minute, was too short with a pass-back, allowing Eto'o to dart in, wait for McGovern to commit himself before threading the ball into the net.
It gave the final scoreline a very lop-sided look. But that was possibly fitting for a match which could be described in much the same way.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Prince Buaben was looking like a prime candidate for man of the match until Lionel Messi (right) came on. After that there was no looking beyond a player blessed with skills and vision which can mesmerise.
Before yesterday's match Dundee United had played Barcelona on five occasions, losing just once.
After his performance at Murrayfield on Thursday the biggest talking point as the match kicked off was the absence of Lionel Messi from the Barcelona starting line-up. Those who wanted to marvel at his skills need not have worried though as he soon made his presence felt when came on for the second half.