Manchester United and Barcelona drew 2-2 in what was an absolute thriller at Camp Nou, with Marcus Rashford netting his 22nd goal of the season in the Europa League play-off first-leg tie over in Spain.
Football fans know that both of the European giants are somewhat out of place in UEFA’s second-tier competition, but the entertainment on show throughout the ninety minutes could have matched any Champions League clash in any year.
Both sides started lively. Fred came tantalisingly close to Bruno Fernandes’ early cross from the right, and Robert Lewandowski was denied by David De Gea shortly afterwards, with the Polish striker playing his first ever game against United at 34-years-old, remarkably.
The half endured in that even tone. Whilst United probably edged the proceedings in terms of the quality of play, the Catalonians were not without their own opportunities to score; either side lacked the cutting edge in the key moments of attack as the half-time whistle was blown and the scoreline remained 0-0.
Neither manager will have been too displeased at the interval, but Erik ten Hag was bound to have been furious in the 50th minute when Marcos Alonso- formerly a left-back at Chelsea but starting at centre-back on the night- headed home from a corner after being under no pressure from Fred. It was a shame for the away side, with De Gea making a tremendous catch from a long-range Raphinha effort moments earlier.
The United of recent years would have lacked the mentality to fight back, but The Reds proved that they are a different devil nowadays with a seven-minute fightback to flip the game on its head. Rashford squeezed the ball beyond Andre Ter Stegen at his near post from the right-hand side in the 52nd minute before forcing an own-goal from Joules Kounde just five minutes later following some quick thinking from Luke Shaw’s corner kick.
The home team had the greater share of possession throughout the second-half yet the visitors were in control after taking the lead. It was the former Real Madrid man, Casemiro, who made the sloppy error of giving the ball away that led to Raphinha scoring the equaliser. The Brazilian winger aimed his cross towards Lewandowski, but the ball flew beyond everyone and into the far corner in the 76th minute to draw Blaugrana level.
The morale-boosting goal allowed Xavi’s men to take the game to their opponents in the final fifteen minutes. Casemiro was fortunate not to put the ball in his own net after blasting it off the post in an attempted clearance. De Gea stood strong in net in front of a resilient defensive line, and United held on for a well-earned draw.
Final Score: Barcelona 2-2 Manchester United (Alonso 50’, Raphinha 76’) (Rashford 52’, Kounde [og] 57’)
Man of the match
It was another fine night for Rashford on the European stage.
The Englishman, now 25-years-old, scored an infamous late penalty away at the Parc des Prince in the 2017/18 campaign to send Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men to the Champions League quarter-finals, but his showing at Camp Nou five years later eclipsed that performance in relation to his overall game.
He hardly set the world on fire in the first half, but was prominent when his side went forward. He upped his levels in the second half with a clinical striker’s finish to draw United level, going on to force the ball in off Kounde not long after to give United the lead.
A big part of why the academy man was so good on Thursday evening was the mentality he showed. Not even twelve months ago, Rashford was trudging around the Etihad as a second-half substitute under Ralf Rangnick, and now he is showing to be a leader to the rest of the squad, demanding the ball in promising situations and running relentlessly to drive the team forward. Not to mention the goals.
Having equaled his best ever scoring tally of 22 goals in all competitions just over halfway through the season (matching his 2019/20 mark), supporters will hope there is more to come from magic Marcus as The Red Devils look to achieve silverware in the business end of the season.
The bigger picture
It is half-time in the tie. After such a good showing on the continent against the leaders of La Liga, fans will hope that United can take the 2-2 draw and get the job done at Old Trafford next week and progress to the Round of 16.
Ten Hag’s men were great. The manager, players and fans will be disappointed not to have come away with the win; Fred’s aloofness on the corner goal and Casemiro’s misplaced pass for the equaliser were preventable, but enough was shown to suggest that United are the favourites to go through.
It will not be easy, though, and it will be a true test for a group of players that includes certain men who have struggled in important knockout games in recent years.
Fans can only admire the work that Ten Hag, Steve McClaren, Mitchell van de Gaag and the other coaches are doing at the club. Who would have thought last season that United could go away to Barcelona and give them a game? Props to them.
Credit to the players too. Many of the squad are playing relentlessly at the moment to accommodate the lack of quality in squad depth and are coming up with the goods.
There are no guarantees in football but, here and now, United are on course to have a very good season.
What is next?
Next up for Ten Hag and United is Leicester City at Old Trafford on Sunday 19th February at 14:00 (BST) in the Premier League.
After that, United take on Barcelona in the second leg of the Europa League play-off clash. That kicks off at 20:00 (BST) on Thursday 23rd February.