Manchester United ended their turgid run of form against Spanish sides with an enthralling 2-1 victory at Old Trafford over Barcelona. It’s a result that sees them into the last 16 of the Europa League, and keeps United fighting on four fronts this season.
Spanish clubs have knocked United out of European competitions in every one of the last five seasons. Having lost to Atletico Madrid in the last 16 of the Champions League last season, and lost the Europa League final to Villarreal the season before, Spanish clubs have tormented Manchester United in their recent past. But finally, on a special night at Old Trafford, they exerted their revenge.
It felt like a special European night ahead of kick off. The Stretford End was in full voice as Robin van Persie and Paul Scholes were serenaded on the touchline, the crowd ready to play their part in what they knew would be a close encounter.
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It’s been many a year since there was an atmosphere like this before a European game at this stadium. But this is the first time in half a decade that the feel-good factor has flowed through the veins of those in the stands. Erik ten Hag has been nothing short of superb since arriving in the summer, and Barcelona have provided his biggest scalp to date.
They had to do it the hard way too, coming from 1-0 down after Bruno Fernandes pulled down Alejandro Balde inside the box and although it was soft, Clement Turpin pointed to the spot. It was another controversial decision but once it had been given, VAR were never going to overturn it. Robert Lewandowski side-footed his penalty towards goal and although David De Gea got a firm hand to it, he couldn’t stop it going in off the post.
Advantage Barcelona, who had taken the lead with their only shot on target in the first half. The endeavour United had hoped for simply wasn’t there, and so Ten Hag made a tactical tweak at the break. Fernandes moved into the number ten position, and Antony came on to replace Wout Weghorst.
It worked a treat. Fred got the second half off to a flyer as Bruno Fernandes found the Brazilian who shinned it into the bottom corner. Old Trafford was alive again. United had a chance. Taking Weghorst out of the team made them so much better as another dynamic forward was introduced in his place.
In what was a brilliant encounter, much like the tie at the Nou Camp, United had to rely on their goalkeeper as Jules Kounde got on the end of a wonderful cross and saw his header tipped over by De Gea. Then, they did what they did in Barcelona and took the lead.
Fernandes out-muscled Raphinha and Alejandro Garnacho has his shot blocked but eventually the ball fell to Antony who hit a left-footed effort into the bottom corner. This time Old Trafford erupted, with a level of joy and delight that we have rarely seen in these parts.
United are now also so difficult to play against once they get in front. And a special mention must go to Fred, the scorer of the equaliser, who was superb throughout - against a talented Barca midfield.
But this was the marker of the progress this club has made this season. Ten Hag has transformed Manchester United into winners. Against any opponent. The special European nights are back on the red half of Manchester. The influx of trophies at United under Ten Hag begins on Sunday, but they could go all the way in more than one cup competition this term.