There was a touch of Sir Alex Ferguson about Erik ten Hag as Manchester United finally found another famous European night. One-nil down, then 2-1 up. It has a familiar ring as the might of Barcelona — an opponent and a location so often associated with Ferguson — was overwhelmed in an electric second half.
It may have been only a playoff to reach the last-16 of the Europa League but it felt like so much more than that as United remain the only team, across the continent, who are fighting on four fronts. That they are doing so owes much to Ten Hag’s boldness as he made the kind of attacking substitutions that were Ferguson’s hallmark.
Sitting in the directors’ box, the Old Trafford patriarch will have approved, having enjoyed dinner with Ten Hag during the week.
But at half-time, the story was different.
With a little over 15 minutes played, Bruno Fernandes chased Alejandro Balde after a Barcelona attack was cleared and he was penalised for placing his arm on the defender, who hit the turf. It was soft, but it was also unnecessary from Fernandes. The penalty was awarded as United’s pleas came to nothing.
David de Gea threw himself to his left and got a right hand to Robert Lewandowski’s kick, after a stuttering run-up, but could not stop it from going in. It may have been unconvincing from Lewandowski but that is 25 goals in 30 games since joining Barcelona.
The visitors were in front on aggregate after the thrilling 2-2 draw in the first leg at Camp Nou last week.
It was just not working for United with Wout Weghorst struggling at centre-forward, Marcus Rashford isolated on the left and Jadon Sancho proving to be a lightweight No 10.
That interval threw a lifeline, a chance to counter. Ten Hag made the change, a positive one, with Brazilian Antony on for the hapless Weghorst and Sancho on the left, where he won the ball back offering Fernandes the chance of redemption. He grasped it with a superb pass into Antony’s fellow countryman Fred. The Brazilian cushioned it and, before Frenkie De Jong could close him down, he poked it beyond Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The blood was up, tensions were rising, and Fernandes sparked a melee after he spitefully hammered the ball into the prone De Jong’s midriff from close range. Like his penalty concession, it was unnecessary, even if the fans lapped it up.
As United poured forward they left themselves open at the back and were indebted to De Gea for an excellent reaction save as he tipped over Jules Kounde’s header.
Ten Hag made more attacking changes. There was no need to relent as United had to continue to go for it despite the threat posed by Barcelona. It was in the balance.
United tipped it back in their favour and it was Antony who took it. Luke Shaw kept the ball in with persistence and a back-heel, Fernandes crossed and although shots from substitute Alejandro Garnacho and Fred were blocked, Antony made no mistake. He found the corner of the net with a low, first-time drive and United were through.
“He is brave, he is fearless,” Ten Hag said of the Brazil forward who cost United USD 95 million for his transfer from Ajax last summer.
The Dutch manager is still in contention to win four trophies, with his team facing Newcastle in the League Cup final on Sunday. United also sit third in the Premier League standings and are stillin the FA Cup.
The Daily Telegraph in London and AP/PTI