No matter how hard I try, I don’t think I could over exaggerate the importance of this fixture. Manchester United and Barcelona – two fallen giants of European football, gradually returning to greatness once again – were set to face off in a winner-takes-all clash at Old Trafford, having settled for a 2-2 draw last time out at Camp Nou.
United’s side featured just one change from the first leg – with Lisandro Martinez returning from suspension at Malacia’s expense. Barcelona’s side featured a few more changes, as Xavi opted to use Balde and Christiansen over Alba and Alonso. The absence of Gavi and Pedri meant Busquets and Sergi Roberto also started.
MUN: De Gea (GK); Shaw, Martinez, Varane, Wan-Bissaka; Casemiro, Fred; Rashford, Sancho, Fernandes (C); Weghorst
BAR: Ter Stegen (GK); Balde, Christiansen, Araujo, Kounde; De Jong, Busquets (C), Kessie; S. Roberto; Lewandowski, Raphinha
United had the first real chance just three minutes in to this fixture, as Casemiro found Fernandes on the right flank, but the Portuguese midfielder’s shot was directed straight at Marc-Andre Ter Stegen who saved with ease. Wout Weghorst also created another chance for the Reds ten minutes later, as he found Rashford on the left with a beautiful pass over the top – but the ball was sent out for a corner as the Englishman worked his way into the box.
Barcelona took the lead soon after, as Balde was hauled to the ground by Bruno Fernandes, who grabbed the left-back’s arm as he surged into the box. Clement Turpin awarded a penalty, and as there was no ‘clear and obvious’ error, Robert Lewandowski stepped up to convert from the spot. The Polish striker did just that, and though De Gea dived the right way, the Spaniard couldn’t get a strong enough hand onto the strike and tipped the ball into his own net.
It had certainly been a scrappier affair than the first leg at Camp Nou, but United continued to search for an equaliser – albeit to no avail. Barcelona had well and truly been the better side in the first half, and had another sensational chance to double their lead on the stroke of half-time, as an awful clearance from David De Gea gave the visitors a clear run through on goal. A great challenge from Casemiro ensured the Reds were just one goal down at the interval.
There was just one half-time substitution from United, with Antony replacing Weghorst for the final 45 minutes. It was a much-needed tactical change that would allow Rashford to return to his preferred central position. The change soon paid off as Sancho – now playing on the left – found Fernandes, who sent the ball towards Fred on the edge of the box. The Brazilian fired home into the bottom corner, and although it wasn’t the cleanest strike, I don’t think he’ll care all too much given the significance of the goal.
Antony became the focal point of most United attacks, and he had a chance of his own with 55 minutes on the clock – but his effort on the half-volley was caught comfortably by Ter Stegen.
Bruno Fernandes and Sergi Roberto received yellow cards for their roles in an on-pitch scrap, after the Portuguese midfielder had booted the ball straight at De Jong. It was an encounter that summarised the game so far – scrappy. It certainly hadn’t been as enthralling to watch as the first leg, though United were doing their best to change that and the introduction of Antony had certainly improved the quality of football.
De Gea was forced into action as Jules Kounde sent a header towards the top corner, but the ‘keeper was able to parry his effort over the bar for a corner. The resulting corner wasn’t really cleared all too well by United, with the ball falling to Franck Kessie on the edge of the box – but his strike was directed straight down the middle and De Gea made the save.
United took the lead in the 73rd minute, as Antony fired home on the volley – finding the bottom left corner with a first-time strike that Ter Stegen had no chance of saving. Shaw had done well to keep the ball in play, and found Fernandes with a cheeky back heel on the left flank. Fernandes cut inside, finding Garnacho – who had a shot blocked. Fred’s effort on the rebound was also blocked, before the ball fell to Antony who duly slotted home.
A crucial block from Raphael Varane in the closing minutes ensured United held onto their lead. Ferran Torres curled a shot round De Gea – but the ex-French international recovered well to hook it off the line. It was a truly heart-in-mouth moment for United, but the linesman’s flag was soon raised as Lewandowski had been offside in the buildup.
Celebrations rang out as Clement Turpin signalled full-time at Old Trafford, as Manchester United topple Barcelona to progress to the next round of the Europa League. Having found a way past the Blaugrana, Erik Ten Hag’s side will surely feel that they are favourites to lift the trophy in Budapest on 31st May. For now though, the attention must turn to Sunday’s Carabao Cup Final against Newcastle United at Wembley.