Thrilling Manchester United burst through Barcelona in vintage comeback

Antony came off the bench to knock Barcelona out  (PA)
Antony came off the bench to knock Barcelona out (PA)

A straight line to the Europa League last-16, in effect, and in nature. That’s the only way to describe a pulsating Manchester United performance, where the devastating directness of their running brought Barcelona a volley of problems they couldn’t handle as well as, ultimately, elimination. Erik ten Hag might still say this 2-1 victory wasn’t his ideal football, but it was impressively thrilling, all the more so for how it involved a vintage European comeback. The most striking element of this game, beyond the contrasting passiveness of Barcelona, was just how fast United are.

Racing ahead on this occasion was substitute Antony, who was fast enough to bring two comebacks - one for his team, one for himself. The Brazilian enjoyed a moment he has waited long enough for, scoring a brilliant volley to add to Fred’s equaliser.

Barcelona by that point couldn’t cope. This hasn’t been what Xavi has got used to in La Liga. This might have to be what everyone else gets used to against Ten Hag’s United. You’re going to have to be quick, the team retaining such an impressive focus even as the takeover process - with all of its many complicated questions - looks so slow.

The Dutch coach ensured there was only the clarity of focus here.

The crowd responded with a celebration that suggested a new communion with this team, reminiscent of what Arsenal have recently enjoyed again. Both could go head to head in the Europa League if they progress to the quarter-finals.

Barcelona are out, having evaporated in the cauldron of Old Trafford.

The great concern for Xavi’s side was how in control they would have felt they had the first half.

So much of that was an enticing tension between United’s hard running and Barcelona’s velvet control, subtle touches against powerful sprints. Some of it could be seen in the first big moment, as Alejandro Balde went down so easily after a run into the box, but Bruno Fernandes made the mistake of putting his hands on him at this level. You could feel a certain sympathy for United, while also understanding that it was a penalty and an element of “living by the sword” for the Portuguese.

Robert Lewandowski, playing his first ever game at Old Trafford, followed that with a soft enough penalty. David De Gea, however, couldn’t get a strong hand to it.


It suited Barca to keep the game at that kind of pace, as the initially kept United at arm’s length with vintage possession.

That was perhaps why they were so taken aback by United’s second-half shift. Much of that had to do with the introduction of Antony and Alejandro Garnacho, of course, but it was also a shift in gear.

United immediately tore at Barca. It was all penetrating straight lines against a backline now evidently accustomed to a slower pace of game.

The pace of United, it must be said, was sensational. Barca couldn’t cope with the torpedo that every run represented, and that immediately left the space for Fred to equalise with a fine low effort.

He’d picked his spot, and Ten Hag’s side knew precisely where to get at Barca. Ten Hag must have been forensic - if also somewhat histrionic - at half-time. His side came out supercharged and superfocused. Casemiro was again crucial to that, his arched balls around the side helping to shape United’s forward surges and the very pattern of the game.

Every attack was by then bringing an opening for United and a scare for Barcelona. Even when the Catalans tried to keep the ball, by that point, they could barely keep their feet. The challenges were becoming increasingly panicked, Ronald Araujo’s lunges to the ground now looking panicked rather than committed.


Lewandowski was lost. The game was there to be won. So many players sensed it. This was on. Garnacho felt a goal on from a long-shot only for that to cannon out, but just to Antony. The Brazilian divinely sent the ball into the far corner.

Barcelona now had that classic dilemma. They had to move their phalanx up considerably higher up the pitch, but it made them so much more susceptible to those surges.

United could have had more. Barcelona’s late attacks seemed half-hearted and half-paced. Ten Hag is realising a full idea.

By the end, the Old Trafford crowd were singing old classics about cheering up Kevin Keegan, in anticipation of Sunday's League Cup final. Newcastle United will need to be up to speed. That is the message from what felt a signature moment for Ten Hag so far.