Second-half goals from Fred and substitute Anthony were the catalyst for a nervy but hard-earned comeback win for Manchester United over La Liga leaders Barcelona in the second leg of their Europa League last-32 tie, prevailing 4-3 on aggregate – welcome preparation before their Wembley trip on Sunday for the Carabao Cup final as Newcastle await.
Tinkering ten Hag ensures Barca bested at Old Trafford
- After 39th game in charge, Erik ten Hag declares recovery result his biggest win so far as United boss in post-match interview
- “The belief of the team is always there, the fans push us through difficult moments. We have made great comebacks, it’s a great result for us but now we have a big match on Sunday,” Fernandes says afterwards
- They’ll be in Friday’s last-16 draw, a strong one featuring Arsenal, Juventus, Roma and Bayer Leverkusen among other sides
17 minutes in and the script had been ripped to shreds.
United captain Bruno Fernandes got the wrong side of fullback Alejandro Blade in the box and conceded a rather cheap penalty, this wasn’t supposed to happen.
Then again, United weren’t expected to relinquish promising opportunities the way they did at home against strugglers Leicester last Sunday.
That time they regrouped – after a pair of fine David de Gea saves – eventually emerging 3-0 winners after a Marcus Rashford brace allowed them breathing space.
Speaking of their goalkeeper though, de Gea would’ve felt annoyed he couldn’t get a stronger hand to Robert Lewandowski’s spot-kick.
The 32-year-old still had an important role to play: an acrobatic touch over the crossbar denied Jules Kounde’s goalbound header during an eventful second-half.
15 minutes before the penalty, Casemiro slid Fernandes through on-goal and he should’ve done better. Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s leg save at his near post was enough to repel the hosts momentarily, but waves of attack soon continued.
He could’ve quickly atoned for his mistake but undercooked a half-volley, then Casemiro’s clever improvisation helped save de Gea’s own blushes before half-time after inadvertently giftwrapping possession to Sergi Roberto.
Roberto shaped to shoot but the Brazilian was on hand to block him, then thwarted Franck Kessie on the follow-up, as the deficit remained one goal at the break.
Changes come, United take charge in second-half
84 seconds after the restart, United were level.
ten Hag had reshuffled the pack: replacing an ineffective Wout Weghorst for Antony at half-time, moving Sancho and Rashford, with instant reward. Fernandes lacked the finishing touch when called upon, but had no problem orchestrating moves.
Sergio Busquets’ headed clearance in no man’s land saw Balde play his way into trouble, from which Sancho slotted towards Fernandes on his right.
He spotted Fred in space on the edge of the area and shortly afterwards, they were wheeling away to celebrate an equaliser which energised the Old Trafford faithful with the seeming ease at which it came.
ter Stegen couldn’t stop the strike arrowing into the bottom corner and it almost went from dicey to disastrous a minute later.
Casemiro’s long hopeful ball set Antony accelerating towards goal with Andreas Christensen giving chase, as Rashford was racing away in support expecting a cutback that never arrived.
Instead, he slid across a heavy pass under pressure and the United siege had been kicked into another gear.
Rashford and Antony had speculative opportunities before the de Gea stop, one created by the playmaker they’d long coveted in Frenkie de Jong from the far side.
After two blocks to deny substitute Alejandro Garnacho and Fred, United ultimately found the breakthrough once more on 73 minutes: Antony steering a sidefooted effort into the far corner, giving them a lead to protect.
They very nearly didn’t, Raphael Varane’s goalline clearance in stoppage-time denying Lewandowski after substitute Ferran Torres slid him through.
It’s easy to forget Barcelona were without two of their key players in midfield duo Gavi and Pedri, so odds would always be stacked against them – especially given how open they are defensively.
Jordi Alba’s omission was telling in that regard, Xavi opting for Balde appeared to pay off early but the 19-year-old wasn’t fantastic out-of-possession either.
The Blaugrana sit eight points clear atop La Liga after 22 games, but for the second season running have been knocked out of European competition with a whimper.
Their flashy recruitment has mostly been poor for a number of years now, and they still lack defensive cohesion too. As for United, they’ll remember this night as one that kickstarted the business end of their own campaign on all fronts.
A depleted Newcastle to come in a cup final on Sunday, they’re still only five points adrift of Premier League leaders Arsenal – having played a game more – and will be quietly confident silverware beckons under ten Hag this term.
Picture source: Getty Images