Neil Humphreys: McTominator ready to rule
Forget Pogba, the 22-year-old Scotland international can boss United midfield
On a dark night, Manchester United waited for Batman, but Robin stole the show instead.
Scott McTominay picked a Champions League tie against Barcelona to confirm his midfield dominance. His eventual reign may lead to Paul Pogba's fall.
Quarter-finals against the Catalan side are the reason for Pogba's existence at the Theatre of Dreams. He was signed for such evenings, the bridge between a gloomy past and the brighter days ahead.
But it's not quite happening. Another indifferent performance in a 1-0 defeat offered further proof that the Frenchman's head might have been turned. Again.
No sooner had Pogba trudged off the field, largely bypassed in a congested five-man midfield, than the rumours resurfaced.
He won't comment on Real Madrid speculation, but he won't rule it out either, playing the boardroom with a panache that he never showed against Barcelona.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's cautious 3-5-2 mostly isolated Pogba, slowing him down and pushing him to the game's periphery.
But, as he was slow and ponderous, McTominay was quick and feisty, snapping at ankles like a restless Afghan hound.
United spent almost £150 million (S$265.6m) on the combined services of Pogba and Fred, fully expecting them to prevail in such prestigious occasions, but they were both upstaged by a scrawny kid from the academy.
Long, languid and 1.94m tall, McTominay's limbs can give the impression that they were thrown together for the wrong sport. He seems too tall to be the archetypal central enforcer, more of a skinny beanpole than a Sergio Busquets.
Yet, he owned central midfield with a physical arrogance that belied his inexperience. He turned only 22 in December, but he turned Arturo Vidal with such comedic timing that the clip belongs on a blooper reel.
In the second half, McTominay dropped a shoulder and skinned Vidal like a starving cannibal, leaving the Chilean to slide in the opposite direction.
Vidal may still be sliding.
Every young footballer can engineer a fancy turn for the showreel, but McTominay never fluffed a line. His performance was exemplary. He bullied like Busquets, against Busquets, who betrayed his irritation with a couple of reckless challenges that probably warranted an early night.
McTominay's rapid progress presents Solskjaer with both a dilemma and an excuse. In a matter of months, United's graduate has morphed into the club's classiest midfielder.
ONE BRIGHT SPARK
As he was the previous teacher's pet, the one bright spark in Jose Mourinho's perpetual dullness, there was a concern that he might be brushed aside by Solskjaer's new broom.
But the Norwegian gave him a start against Liverpool and he reciprocated with a dominant display at the base of midfield.
The bright spark under Mourinho then returned for Solskjaer against Wolverhampton Wanderers last week. He was the only goal-scoring positive in a miserable defeat.
And there were also his heroics in Paris, starring alongside Fred and a cast of second-stringers to overwhelm the French favourites.
But, if his work against Paris Saint-Germain felt like an introduction to the international stage, then his Barcelona performance was a consolidation of his position. He's not going anywhere.
The kid they call the McTominator in training will be back, time and again, a permanent fixture in the dressing room. His consistency against Liverpool, PSG, Wolves and now Barcelona can no longer be downplayed as youthful exuberance, but the steady of evolution of a midfielder who looks increasingly the complete package.
He's becoming the footballer that Pogba was supposed to be, one who intimidates opponents and revels in the latter stages of the Champions League.
In games of this magnitude, McTominay runs. Pogba often hides.
And that's the dilemma for a manager struggling to accommodate a £90m asset into a fast, counter-attacking line-up that doesn't particularly suit the Frenchman. (Pogba clearly prefers Les Bleus' more rigid 4-3-3 where a slower approach allows him to gallop between the lines).
FRED COMPLEMENTS SCOTT
But it also gives Solskjaer an excuse. If Real and Pogba's agent are intent on substantially increasing the GDP of the Independent State of Pogba, then the United manager glimpsed a possible future without him.
Fred made more passes and interceptions against Barcelona, but McTominay made United tick. One complemented the other. Fred did the water carrying. McTominay did the pretty stuff, which included a balletic turn that left Busquets, Arthur and Philippe Coutinho spinning like skittles.
In that moment, he was where he needed to be, where he wanted to be. And that may prove to be the difference for Solskjaer.
Pogba still hasn't fully settled in central midfield. But McTominay looks right at home.