With Smalling likely to start at the heart of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s defense and Messi intent on performing the role immortalized by his unparalleled phenomenon, the pair will — by the game’s close — be well-acquainted. To leave Messi unattended is, at best, unwise.
Mikael Silvestre — a Champions League winner during his time at Manchester United — acknowledged that it is Messi’s divine brilliance that stands in his former team’s way on its path to an unlikely semifinal place.
“Barcelona — except ‘God’ (Messi) — is a team that you can stop over two games,” Silvestre told CNN Sport last month. “I think United can stop Barcelona and progress.”
Given both the Catalan side’s style of play and the central importance of Messi, Silvestre is well aware of the grit and good fortune necessary if his former club is to remain in the game for long enough to concern the five-time winners.
“They did it against Paris [in the previous round, where United overcame a 2-0 first-leg deficit to win on away goals]. They ended up playing with Mason Greenwood, Tahith Chong, James Garner — the three youngsters — in the Parc des Princes.
“It was an inspiring performance, with that mental ability to stay in the game and believe and to never ever give up. It is in the club’s DNA — that never-give-up attitude.”
Messi, though remains the key. As a defender who racked up 249 appearances during the Alex Ferguson era, Silvestre has a warning for his former team.
“It is when you have the ball that he is at his most dangerous because he is going to disappear and then going to reappear,” Silvestre explained of Messi’s threat.
“[Stopping him] has been done before,” he points out. “We know how to do it.” Indeed, Silvestre himself has managed it; he came on as a late substitute when United beat Barcelona by a single goal in the 2008 semifinal.
More than a decade on, though, Messi’s icon has more than stood the test of time. That the Argentine has not been crowned as the world’s greatest player since claiming his fifth Ballon d’Or title in 2015 is, in many ways, a red herring.
His unique ability has never declined, and nor have his own numbers; 26 goals in the 2015/16 La Liga season have subsequently been followed by 37 and 34, with the Argentine great sat on 33 with seven games of the current season remaining — a year dominated by his Barcelona side.
In this year’s Champions League, Messi’s six appearances have brought with them eight goals and a further three assists.
It is a run that has added to an already exceptional overall record in Europe’s major club competition; 108 goals in 131 appearances give him a superior minutes per goal ratio to that of his great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, though the Argentine remains 16 strikes behind the Juventus forward’s 124.
The duo’s long-running battle for footballing supremacy has seen them competing in a competition of their own. Former Real Madrid captain Raul Gonzalez is the pair’s closest challenger — but even his 71 goals place him 37 behind Messi.
Of those still active, Karim Benzema is the next closest, but his Champions League tally of 60 is less than halfway to Ronaldo’s astronomic figure.
Alongside Messi’s extraordinary, timeless supremacy has, however, sat an accusation that he has struggled to reach his own high standards when faced with English opposition.
Yet, for almost as long as the theory has existed, it is a label that Messi has confounded. There are, of course, occasional outliers. Messi’s record against Chelsea, for example, sits at just three goals in 10 games.
However, his history with Manchester United is different. Although it currently shows just two goals in four games, those strikes came in the 2009 and 2011 finals. His performance at Wembley in the latter of the two is remembered for its sheer majesty, as Barcelona cruised to a 3-1 victory.
Some hope, perhaps, for the Old Trafford faithful comes in Messi’s record on English soil.
While hardly a goalscoring famine, Messi has netted eight times in 15 games in England, as opposed to 13 in 14 matches at the Camp Nou. Indeed, he is also without a goal in his last 11 Champions League quarterfinals.
Whether that is an omen for Solskjaer’s side — good or bad — remains to be seen.