Manchester United continue European adventure with comeback defeat of Barcelona

Antony and Fred on target on thrilling night at Old Trafford

Manchester United 2 Barcelona 1

It is probably fair to say that the jury has been out on Antony since Manchester United’s decision to pay €100m for him last summer. The most insistent criticism has been that he is too predictable. Defenders know that he wants to come in from the right and curl for the far corner with his favoured left foot. It will not be out for much longer if he gets the trick to work to this kind of effect on nights like these.

United had battled back from a 1-0 half-time deficit, Fred lashing home to cancel out Robert Lewandowski’s penalty and a meeting that always crackles was in search of its latest hero. United have had a few goalscoring heroes over the years against Barcelona, taking in Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Paul Scholes. Now Antony, who had come on as a half-time substitute, added his name to the list.

The goal was sparked by a Luke Shaw back-heel by the corner flag and Bruno Fernandes muscling Raphinha off the ball to cross. First, another substitute, Alejandro Garnacho had a shot blocked; then Fred saw the same thing happen. Enter Antony, a case study in concentration to do this thing – the left-footed curler for the far corner. The execution was perfect and United and the manager, Erik ten Hag, were on their way to a famous victory.


It was the playoff for the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier competition and yet it had the trappings of a blockbuster, Old Trafford gleaming under the lights, two of the continent’s genuine superpowers present and renascent.

If United believed they were on their way to restoring a bit of the old fear factor for visitors, Barcelona had arrived on a stunning run.

Since they lost 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League on 26 October, Xavi’s team had won 16 of 18 in all competitions, drawing the other two – one of them the first-leg thriller against United.

It was the biggest game of Ten Hag’s United tenure and his players brought the intensity at the outset, feeding off the crowd, pressing high and making it uncomfortable for Barcelona. As such, the concession on 18 minutes was a shuddering setback.

The main thing to say is that Bruno Fernandes gave the referee, Clément Turpin, a decision to make. The United captain chased a loose ball following Raphinha’s cross from the right with Alejandro Balde and his priority seemed to be to break quickly. He was caught out when Balde got there first and spun sharply, Fernandes grabbing the left-back’s arm, albeit not particularly firmly. Balde felt the contact, went down and Lewandowski was not bothered about the softness of the award. David De Gea got a hand to his kick but it was not enough.

For Fernandes, it capped a wretched start because he should have put United in front with the tie’s first move. Casemiro made an interception, gave the ball away and won it straight back before releasing Fernandes with a pass up the inside right. He had all the time he needed – perhaps too much – and the finish was blasted low at Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who saved.

Ten Hag had started with Wout Weghorst up front, Jadon Sancho as the No 10 and Marcus Rashford on the left. There was a flicker from Rashford when he pulled down a high ball in sumptuous style in the 14th minute before beating his man and winning a corner but the Barcelona breakthrough completely changed the energy around the ground.

For the remainder of the first half, it was United that looked edgy and imprecise; Barcelona who found their passing rhythms, with Frenkie de Jong the conductor. He did not need to play like this – also racing back at times to provide defensive cover – to show why Ten Hag had been desperate to sign him last summer. But he did anyway.

Fernandes failed to muster power in a volley and, with the home fans growing increasingly exasperated at Turpin’s decisions, it was Barcelona who almost extended their lead before the interval. Lisandro Martínez made a saving challenge on Franck Kessie and, on the stroke of half-time, Casemiro bailed out De Gea after the goalkeeper had passed straight to Sergi Roberto. First Casemiro jumped into a slide tackle on the Barcelona winger and then, lying on the ground, he blocked Kessie’s follow-up.

Ten Hag needed to act for the second-half. His team had come to look flat. He swapped the ineffective Weghorst for Antony, moved Fernandes to the No 10 role, Sancho out left and Rashford up top. The move was instantly vindicated. Rashford put a foot in on Kessie, Sancho went square for Fernandes and he fizzed the ball along to Fred as though he meant it. Fred’s first touch was excellent, setting up the right-footed finish.

The electricity surged back through United, with Antony almost getting away from Andreas Christensen. Fernandes showed that the knocks do not phase him while Martínez’s authority was pronounced. Fernandes did overstep when he blasted the ball at De Jong after the Barcelona playmaker had been fouled. Cue an angry bout of pushing and shoving. Fernandes was booked.

It was shaping up as another classic, the atmosphere rocking as De Gea tipped over a Jules Koundé header from De Jong’s cross. Koundé should have scored. For United, Antony would do. – Guardian