Old Trafford was the cauldron and Erik ten Hag was the Wizard behind Manchester United’s comeback vs Barcelona.
It is a huge testament to the work of the Dutchman, that there was an air of inevitability of the result going into the game. That cautious confidence is a symptom of what fans have seen in recent months. Prior to the game, wrote the script for the United faithful and those in attendance played their part as chants rung from the terraces for a long while prior to kick-off.
While the fans didn’t disappoint, United players began the game unable to sing from the same hymn sheet. Chances were few and far between for United as the reds were pretty much dominated by the team wearing gold on the night early on in the match. United had the chance to edge ahead just three minutes in. After absorbing early pressure, the chance arose for Bruno Fernandes who was in acres of space on the right-hand side to run through one-on-one with Andre Ter Stegen, with the German goalkeeper coming out on top.
The nerves continued as the fans were reluctant to sing but sang nonetheless. On the 15-minute mark, Fernandes, this time involved in his own box caressed the arm of Alex Balde who took the opportunity to acquaint himself with the Old Trafford turf as a result. The referee, Clement Turpin, deemed that enough to give a penalty. Robert Lewandowski struck an unsure figure stepping up, taking sharp breaths to pace himself. Unfortunately for David de Gea, the short, sharp breaths matched the run-up and while getting a hand to the ball, Lewandowski still converted putting the visitors a goal to the good.Embed from Getty Images
Barcelona we’re buoyed by the early goal and for a lengthy period of the first half, controlled possession. United were seemingly bettered in possession seemingly because they themselves looked as though they didn’t want to keep it. The Reds were extremely sloppy, none more so than de Gea. The Spaniard while passing out the back, opted for a wayward ball that found no one but gold shirts right staring down on goal. Two last-ditch blocks from birthday boy Casemiro ensured United were only a goal down at halftime.
Ten Hag acted quickly, recognising that Wout Weghorst was isolated and Jadon Sancho was barely in the game. United’s man of the moment, Marcus Rashford also barely got a sniff. Antony replaced Weghorst at the break and brought life back into United’s performance.
The Brazilian’s introduction prompted a system change with Rashford moving centrally, Sancho to the left, Fernandes behind the striker and Antony on the right. The change caught the Blaugrana by surprise with none other than Fred instantly benefiting from the tweak. Barcelona we’re lazy in defence and with 47 on the clock, United punched with Sancho playing in Fernandes who found Fred. The Brazilian’s touch set up a goal he could use his shin to score and put United on level terms.Embed from Getty Images
Old Trafford erupted with United playing the second half being drawn in by the Stratford end, United’s performance grew. Two minutes after the goal Antony broke wide on the right and only for some good defending from Christensen, he could’ve found Rashford who would have had a tap-in. United even took the time to welcome Frenkie de Jong a welcome as the Dutchman probably appreciated Fernandes blasting the ball at his gut from close range after the whistle blew and De Jong was on the ground. Tempers flared and a scuffle ensued, which saw both Fernandes and Sergi Roberto booked.
After more changes from Ten Hag, with Alejandro Garnacho replacing Sancho and Diogo Dalot replacing Wan-Bissaka, the intention was clear. United continued an onslaught that yielded result – the result, the result United felt was inevitable.
The Stretford end was calling as on the left-hand side, Luke Shaw kept the ball alive with a back heel to Fernandes who brushed aside his former Sporting teammate Raphina. The Portuguese played in Garnacho whose shot was blocked, as was Fred’s who followed up. Antony on the other hand passed the ball expertly passed the grasp of Ter Stegen putting United 2-1 up and on course for victory.Embed from Getty Images
After United took the lead there was only one team in the tie, Xavi along with his players had dropped their heads minutes before the final whistle allowing Scott Mctominay to be introduced for Rashford to see out the game. There was a last-gasp effort from Barcelona though, but Ferran Torres’ effort was blocked off the line by ex-Real Madrid defender, Raphael Varane, providing a poetic ending to an instant classic tie over both legs.
Final Score: Manchester United (4)2-1(3) Barcelona (Robert Lewandowski ,18′ Fred 47, Antony 73′)
Man of the Match: AntonyEmbed from Getty Images
For all the criticism the winger has received since his big-money move to Manchester, today Antony showed what he brings to the table.
His touches of the ball are very much tidy meaning that keeping possession is a whole lot easier with Antony in the team. His on-the-ball capabilities and his confidence make him a joy to watch at times. But there lies the dilemma for Ten Hag who will have to decide whether the Brazilian makes his starting lineup at Wembley.
In truth, many fans may have felt that the tie against Barcelona was a free hit. Had United been knocked out, all of a sudden the number of games United potentially would have had in the pipeline would have decreased significantly. But not under Ten Hag. The Dutchman has instilled a mentality in the squad that looks at each game as it comes.
Ten Hag also takes pride in the fact that the Reds remain the only side in Europe to be in four competitions still. The hope is that silverware quickly follows.
Wembley. It’s the big one, a chance to exercise the demons of of the last six years and end the trophy drought. The game will take place on Sunday the 26th against Newcastle.