Manchester United came from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 at Old Trafford on Thursday, sealing their passage into the Europa League’s round of 16 after a 4-3 aggregate win. The Reds fell behind in a disappointing first half, but rallied to come from behind courtesy of goals from Fred and Antony in an exciting second.
Erik ten Hag made four changes to the side that beat Leicester City on Sunday, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphaël Varane, Casemiro and Jadon Sancho all coming into the starting lineup. The only change from last week’s first leg was in defence, where Lisandro Martínez returned from suspension to replace Tyrell Malacia; Luke Shaw shuffled from centre-half to his natural left-back position.
United created the first chance of the game after just three minutes, when Casemiro nicked possession in midfield and carved a beautiful low pass out to Bruno Fernandes on the right. He scampered goalwards and jabbed a low shot towards the near post, though Marc-André ter Stegen made a comfortable save.
It proved United’s only real chance of a disappointing first half, and just six minutes later Barça took the lead. Referee Clément Turpin pointed to the penalty spot after Bruno Fernandes tugged Alejandro Balde to the ground, and though David de Gea got a hand to Robert Lewandowski’s rising effort, he couldn’t keep it out.
The remainder of the first half was a scrappy affair, but Barça always looked the more likely to score. They should’ve added a second on the stroke of halftime, when De Gea gifted possession straight to Sergi Roberto on the edge of the area, though Casemiro made a heroic last-ditch double-tackle to keep United in the tie.
Ten Hag made one change at halftime, introducing Antony in place of the ineffectual Wout Weghorst. The tactical reshuffle paid immediate dividends. Within two minutes of the restart United won the ball high up the pitch, and Fernandes fired a low pass into Fred, who shinned a low shot into the bottom corner for 1-1.
United were rejuvenated by the equaliser, but Barça continued to issue occasional reminders of their attacking threat. Jules Koundé drew a superb reflex stop from de Gea past the hour, and Franck Kessié again called the Spaniard into action with a low drive from the subsequent corner. Ten Hag soon switched things up again, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Sancho making way for Diogo Dalot and Alejandro Garnacho.
But inside the final 20 minutes, United netted the winner. Again the goal was the result of some smart pressing, as Fernandes won possession high to the left of the Barcelona box. Garnacho and Fred both had shots blocked in the ensuing melee, before the loose ball eventually fell kindly for Antony to sweep into the bottom corner. It was a characteristically emphatic left-footed finish from the Brazilian, who curled low and hard inside ter Stegen’s far post.
It proved the winning goal, if only thanks to a stoppage time goal-line clearance from Varane. It’s exactly the tonic ten Hag would’ve hoped for ahead of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final clash with Newcastle United at Wembley. We’ll find out who United will face in the Europa League’s last 16 tomorrow, when the draw is made at UEFA’s Switzerland HQ.