[Match Highlights – Post-Match Reaction]
Manchester United 2 Barcelona 1 (Agg 4-3)
Fred (47), Antony (73) – Lewandowski (18 pen)
A goal down and with the exit from European football looming, Erik ten Hag unleashed United’s potential with a halftime tactical reshuffle. Goals from Fred and Antony put the Spaniards to the sword in a second half where they simply could not cope with wave after wave of attacking from a relentless United.
In an atmosphere not felt at Old Trafford in recent years, United players seemed over-awed by the occasion and hampered by the shackles of their tactical shape. Weghorst, so effective in the first leg, struggled to stop Barcelona’s defenders playing out from the back. Alone up front, the attacker spent most of the half chasing shadows. Behind him, Sancho was almost anonymous. Rashford though willing, could not affect the game, and his best moments came chasing back.
It was Fernandes who suffered the most. Isolated out on the right wing, his energy and invention were frustrated by the shackles of positional discipline. That he spurned an early chance one on one with the keeper early on only added to his frustration. Outside of sporadic United chances, Barcelona dominated the game. Fernandes had spent most of his time trying to contain Barcelona rather than United inspiring United. After fifteen minutes, Fernandes’ discipline cracked. Forced into his own box to cover the rampaging Barca fullback, he briefly tugged his arm, and Balde showed no hesitation in going down. It was a soft penalty but Fernandes had let his frustration get the better of him and cost United a goal. DeGea got a hand to Lewandowski’s shot but only to deflect the penalty in off the post.
Previous iterations of United would’ve folded and in the dying moments of the first half, this United almost did. Martinez passed back to DeGea, and instead of hitting it long, the keeper found Roberto on the edge of United’s box. In the time that it took the Barcelona player to get the ball under control, Casemiro had chased back from midfield to throw himself in front of the shot and then, from the floor, he blocked a second. Barcelona would come to rue that their first-half dominance had only given them a slender one-goal lead.
We may never know what Erik ten Hag said to his players at halftime. He changed personal with Antony replacing Weghorst and that reshuffle saw Rashford and Fernandes move from out wide into the middle. More than that, United came out full of belief and running. Every player seemed to have gained a yard of pace, and where shoulders and heads had slumped in the first half, now United stood tall. The crowd sensed it, and the Barcelona players looked intimidated by it. Within minutes of the restart, the game was all square.
Fred, who had a first half where most would question not only his nationality but his chosen profession, was transformed. Ten Hag later described him as a mosquito, but he was like a swarm in midfield, bringing chaos to a Barcelona side that had grown used to having it all their own way. Fred’s metamorphosis came two minutes after kick-off. Sancho, now playing on the left, squared the ball to Fernandes. Fernandes took a touch, turned, and fired a ball into Fred’s feet at the edge of the box. Fred’s first touch took him into the box, and his second finished in the back of the net. For the rest of the game, Fred was magnificent. United had allowed Barcelona to look composed and elegant in the first half. In the second, Fred’s performance had them in disarray. He may not have the gifts of spraying the ball around and sometimes seems to struggle with simple passes but given permission to wreak havoc and uncertainty in opposition teams, there are few better. For the rest of the half, he constantly undermined an ability Barcelona had to play the football they wanted to. United were on top. Fred, as well as the tactical changes up front, were central to that.
From that point on, it looked like there would be only one Winner. United dominated. Barcelona, who had looked every inch like a team atop La Liga were reduced to hunting for scraps and forced into increasingly desperate defending. After seventy-two minutes, United’s relentless pressure bore results.
Martinez sent a ball towards the left corner flag for Shaw to chase. In previous seasons, Shaw probably would’ve given up the chase and turned to applaud the attempted pass. Not tonight, though. Shaw chased the ball and, not allowing it to run out of play, back-heeled it. Fernandes bullied the first defender off the ball and beat a second before passing to Garnacho whose shot was blocked. Fred was the next to shoot. His shot was blocked, but this time it deflected to Antony on the righthand side of the box. His first-time, left-foot shot beat the flailing Ter Stegen and nestled into the bottom left corner of the goal. United were on top at last, and although there were a few more nervous moments before the end, United held on as deserving winners.
De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Martinez, Shaw, Fred, Casemiro, Fernandes, Rashford, Sancho, Weghorst.
Subs: Heaton, Lindelof, Maguire, Malacia, Sabitzer, Dalot, Antony, Pellistri, Elanga, McTominay, Garnacho, Mainoo.
Ter Stegen, Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Balde, De Jong, Busquets, Kessie, Raphinha, Lewandowski, Roberto.
Subs: Peña, Tenas, Fati, Torres, Alonso, Alba, García, Casado, Torre.
Referee: Clément Turpin (France).