It was strange to see these two playing in a Thursday night football game, but turmoil over the years made the traditional giants in European club football to meet in the Play-Off of the UEFA Europa League. The first leg of this fixture saw the home side Barcelona go 1-0 up, before they had to settled for a 2-2 draw against Manchester United at the end. The now abolished away goal rule meant both sides headed to Old Trafford for the second-legged match with no team having an advantage.
Penalty or Not?
Erik ten Hag made four changes to his Manchester United side that beat Leicester City at home last weekend, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphaël Varane, Casemiro and Jadon Sancho all back to the starting line-up, while Xavi, the manager of the current league leader of the Spanish La Liga, opted for similar numbers of alterations to his team that overcame Cádiz CF at Camp Nou. The Catalan giants were without young midfield sensations Pedri and Gavi due to injury and suspension.
Many predicted that United would be dominating the match, but it was the visitors who drew first blood in the 18th minute, after 19-year-old left-back Alejandro Balde was brought down by United’s captain Bruno Fernandes in the penalty box. The replay showed the decision could have gone either way but French referee Clément Turpin ultimately awarded a spot kick to Barca, in which its star man Robert Lewandowski converted. United’s no. 1 David de Gea had a touch on the strike, but was unable to parry it off the goal.
The Devils Roared Back, Again
Barca’s opening goal fueled United’s motivation to find an equaliser, and it did not have to wait too long when both team switched sides after half time. Two minutes after the restart, a fit-again Sancho found Bruno before the penalty box, who fed his Brazilian midfield partner Fred for a strike. The 29-year-old coolly controlled the ball into the dangerous zone, before slotting home United’s goal into the bottom right corner.
The Red Devils came alive after their goal and eagerly hunted for their second before the roaring home fans, and finally found the back of the net again in the 73rd minute, courtesy of another Brazilian, Antony. The strike completed a beautiful passage of attacking play, when left-back Luke Shaw kept the ball alive with a cheeky backheel, before Bruno Fernandes beat Raphinha for possession and sent a pass to the blonde-haired Alejandro Garnacho. The Argentinian’s strike and Fred’s following shot were all repelled by Barca’s defensive line, only for the ball to land perfectly for Antony, who had just come back from injury, to lash a shot with his preferred left foot. The 23-year-old’s goal proved the winner of this match, allowing Manchester United to progress into the next round with a 4-3 aggregate score line.
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Birthday Gifts for Casemiro and Antony
It is worth pointing out that birthday boy and 31-year-old midfielder Casemiro played the full 90 minutes for Manchester United last night and was influential against his former La Liga rival team in Real Madrid, while Antony, who is celebrating his 23rd birthday today, earned his precious gift by scoring the winning goal against Barcelona. The victory definitely made the Brazilians’ day even more special that it already was, as the Red Devils now edged closer to an European club football glory in the UEFA Europa League.
Ten Hag: “It Was a Magnificent Night.”
United’s 53-year-old Dutch manager hailed his team’s performance last night, applauding his men who showed “Great personalities” and “Resilience” against a football powerhouse like Spanish La Liga’s Barcelona. He also added that the team had to be instilled with belief during the interval, and a substitute like Antony was a spark to change the dynamics of the game. His statement read “I think in the pressing, we could be more brave. So, that is what we emphasised. The second was to make the sub with Antony, who brought more speed in the play and who brings belief on the pitch. It was a magnificent night. I think it is brilliant when you can beat Barcelona – eight points ahead of Real Madrid in LaLiga – and we have seen this week Real Madrid playing [in their 5-2 win [over Liverpool]. We did a magnificent performance”.
After the biggest win in his tenure as the manager of Manchester United, Erik ten Hag’s Red Devils will have a chance to win a silverware, when they travel to Wembley Stadium for the Carabao Cup final against fellow Premier League team Newcastle United this Sunday.