Belief is growing that Manchester United’s season will end with multiple glories
It was a comparison designed to go down well with the Manchester United support. The scoreline from Anfield had scarcely escaped their notice but Erik ten Hag felt he would reference it anyway. “Barcelona are the leader of La Liga, eight points ahead of Real Madrid,” he said. “We have seen what Real Madrid did this week.” There has been an Anglo-Spanish double bill between the two most decorated clubs in each country. Real Madrid scored five at Anfield. Barcelona exited the Europa League at Old Trafford.
And if that reflects the very different halves of their record, departing two European competitions while conceding an average of two goals a game while runaway leaders in their homeland after letting in only seven all season, it scarcely detracted from the feat. “We have the potential to beat good teams,” Ten Hag said. “We can beat [Manchester] City, we can beat Arsenal, we can beat Liverpool.” Indeed, his United have beaten each. Defeating the probable Spanish champions, however, ranked as his biggest win so far. “Oh yes, I think so,” said Ten Hag.
Perhaps it was the epic element of a two-legged tie, the test United passed in the Nou Camp. Maybe it was the way they had the wherewithal to come from behind in Manchester, just as they had rallied after trailing in Catalonia. In part, it was the rousing atmosphere: Old Trafford probably had not been louder for years, let alone in Ten Hag’s tenure. “Old Trafford was bouncing,” said Bruno Fernandes. It formed part of a broader feel of a club on the up again. “I think this is another step because when you can beat Barcelona - one of the best teams in this moment in Europe - your belief can be really strong,” Ten Hag said.
United’s is growing with every win, with ever more affirmation that something special may be taking shape at Old Trafford. There are flashier and more glamorous managers than Ten Hag but maybe few with more substance. United, who felt so fragile and fractured last year, now have a spine of strong characters. “I think we have great personalities, starting with David [de Gea], Rapha [Varane], Licha [Lisandro Martinez], Casemiro, Bruno: winning types,” Ten Hag said.
The two multiple Champions League winners among them were cases in point. Casemiro rarely got to be the playmaker in Clasicos - not when Luka Modric and Toni Kroos were playing – but he opened up Barcelona with a wonderful pass for Fernandes’ second-minute chance. As United sought to hold on to their lead, he was booked for dragging Robert Lewandowski back. Still later, a pumped-up Varane made a brilliant goal-line clearance from the Pole. He was not to know a potential equaliser would have been chalked off for offside. Much like De Gea’s save from Jules Kounde, it was a case of a big personality providing a last-ditch intervention.
Varane and Martinez are the warrior centre-backs. “They don’t fear anyone,” said Ten Hag. He felt his match-winner shares a similar belief. “He is brave, he is fearless,” he described Antony. The same may be said of Fred, whose shortcomings do not include a lack of confidence. “A mosquito,” said his manager, and he meant it as a compliment. It was the way he buzzed around Frenkie de Jong. Fred scored United’s first goal and played a part in their second.
In his own way, he epitomised an ethos. Barcelona played the possession football; United did not try tiki-taka. Their previous Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, had a side who passed the ball sideways. Ten Hag’s team, like the energetic Fred, ran forwards. “I like the speed,” explained the manager. “I like dynamic football. I don’t like static football, I don’t like boring football. I like football that entertains the people.”
Beating Barcelona any way would have done; doing so in such a vibrant fashion only amplified the sense that United are back. The numbers are already stacking up. United ended Barcelona’s 18-match unbeaten run. They have 15 wins in 16 at Old Trafford, one defeat in 20 anywhere. It would be emphasised if they get a first trophy in six years against Newcastle on Sunday. It might not be their last piece of silverware.
Their fans long mocked Liverpool for the supposedly “plastic treble” of winning the Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup in 2001; Gerard Houllier’s side knocked Barcelona out of Europe and got a top-four finish as well. United can start to envisage a similar success on four fronts. And, after the lows of last season, there would be nothing plastic about such a seismic shift in their fortunes.