A big statement for Man Utd in win over Barcelona, who can now focus on LaLiga


MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United knocked Barcelona out of the Europa League with a frantic 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag’s team came from behind to book their place in the last-16 thanks to second half goals from Fred and substitute Anthony.

Robert Lewandowski‘s first-half penalty had given Barcelona the lead but after losing the tie 4-3 on aggregate, the Spanish giants are left to focus on their LaLiga and the Copa del Rey campaigns.

United, meanwhile, are still in four competitions and head to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United on Sunday on a high (stream on ESPN+, 11:30 a.m. ET).

Rapid reaction

1. Ten Hag wins touchline battle against Xavi

There were fascinating duels all over the pitch — Casemiro vs. Sergio Busquets and Lisandro Martinez vs. Robert Lewandowski, among them — but United manager Erik ten Hag won his with Barcelona counterpart Xavi Hernandez and it proved decisive.

Barcelona looked in control after taking the lead but Antony‘s introduction for Wout Weghorst at halftime changed the game. Antony stretched Barcelona’s defence and Bruno Fernandes, moved inside off the right, began to find more space and was involved in both United’s goals. United still needed a full length save from David De Gea to stop a Jules Kounde header and stoppage time goal line clearance from Raphael Varane from Lewandowski before being sure of a place in Friday’s draw for the last-16 but Ten Hag can be pleased that he had a similar impact.

On the type of frantic, fierce European night that United fans have been missing since reaching three Champions League finals between 2008 and 2011, the Dutchman’s new-look team showed they are not far away from bringing back these occasions in Europe top club competition. Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City have already been beaten at Old Trafford this season and against Barcelona, United recorded another statement win in a season that is promising to deliver trophies as well as hope for the future.

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2. Not quite Keane but Fernandes shows mettle in comeback

Bruno Fernandes looked in danger of letting the red mist take over in the first half but regained his composure to lead United’s fight back.

He was already annoyed at missing a golden early chance after being played in by Casemiro when French referee Clement Turpin gave a penalty for his tug on Alejandro Balde. It was a soft decision but Fernandes was barely in the game for the next 10 minutes as he spent it arguing with Xavi on the touchline and chasing Turpin around for another row.

He almost started a riot in the second half when he booted the ball into Frenkie de Jong but either side, it was his cool head which turned the game for United. First he fizzed a pass into Fred for the Brazilian to score the equaliser and with the tie in the balance he bulldozed Raphinha off the ball in the corner to help set up Antony.

It wasn’t quite Roy Keane against Juventus in Turin back in 1999 but it was still a captain’s performance from Fernandes on a big European night. It might not have been his most technically perfect display but it was full of the fight and grit that Ten Hag values in his players.

3. Barcelona’s exit turns focus to where it matters

Barcelona ended the first half in complete control after Lewanowski had given them the lead from the spot and Xavi will no doubt be annoyed that Fred was allowed to equalise just minutes after the break. But this was a competition Barcelona didn’t want to be in anyway after dropping down from the Champions League after the group stage and from then on, making sure they get over the line in LaLiga was always going to be the priority.

Despite missing Pedri and Gavi at Old Trafford, they controlled a long spell after Lewandowski’s penalty and it was only after halftime that they began to look ragged with Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford finding more space. Over the two legs, there really wasn’t much in it between two teams who are working their way back up to the top of European football.

Barcelona, still battling to balance the books off the pitch, can take a big step forward by winning their first Spanish title since 2019. Eight points clear of Real Madrid at the top (with whom they’ll also play a two-legged Copa del Rey semifinal match), they are in pole position and if they can get the job done, very few fans will care about their very brief foray into the Europa League.

Best and worst performers

BEST: Antony, FW, Man United
Changed the game when he came on at half-time and scored the crucial second goal.

BEST: Lisandro Martinez, DF, Man United
His positioning was spot on to snuff out more than one Barcelona attack.

BEST: Frenkie de Jong, MF, Barcelona
Struggled in the first leg but looked so calm on the ball here alongside Sergio Busquets, particularly in the first half.

WORST: Raphinha, FW, Barcelona
The Brazilian was far too soft in his challenge on Fernandes in the build up to Antony’s winner.

WORST: Aaron Wan-Bissaka, DF, Man United
Struggled early in the second as Barcelona found gaps on United’s right and had to be replaced with Diogo Dalot.

WORST: Wout Weghorst, ST, Man United
Moved back up front but had little impact in the first half and was substituted at half time.

Highlights and notable moments

Was it a penalty? You decide, but Bruno Fernandes didn’t think so when he got tangled with Alejandro Balde. A stutter-step run-up by Robert Lewandowski in the penalty conversion gave Barcelona the initial lead.

After Fred’s equaliser in the second half, it was Antony who stepped up to deliver the game-winning goal, sending Old Trafford into a frenzy.

After the match: What the managers and players said

Manchester United coach Erik ten Hag to BT, on how big the win was: “Yes, we’ve had some good wins, Liverpool and Arsenal but I think this over two legs — Barcelona are LaLiga leaders — to beat them it’s a big win.”

Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez, on exit from European play: “The only positive is that on Sunday we have a game, we focus on Almeria [in LaLiga action], then on the semifinal of the Copa del Rey on Thursday [against Real Madrid], two competitions that remain, which are very important fo the club.”

Xavi, on if Barcelona have improved in Europe: “We are much better than last season … we came up against Bayern,Internaztionale [in Champions League group stage], Manchester United … these are big sides, but we were not good enough. We have improved but it wasn’t enough. We will try again, we will be self-critical and look to improve in Europe.”

Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes, on the penalty decision: “Nothing I can say will change it now but I thought it was a bit soft, both us trying to get the position both of us using our arms but it is what it is, I don’t want to make comments.”

Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets, on the loss: “The first half was good. We had the lead and had chances to maybe make it 2-0. It changed after the break. They were much better. They got into the area and created danger with the free man, rebounds… from there we tried, we had a couple of chances, the Kounde one, a few more … It’s a shame, but for small details we have been knocked out.”

Barcelona defender Jules Kounde, on the result: “Disappointment. We had a lot of hope deposited in this competition. I don’t think it’s a failure given how we competed against one of most in-form sides in Europe. We still believe, we have improved and now we want to keep growing and improving.”

Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)

– Manchester United have a 18-game home unbeaten streak (16-0-2) since Europa League loss to Real Sociedad at Old Trafford on Sept. 8.

– Manchester United remain in contention for a title run in all four of their competitions this season: Premier League, Europa League, Carabao Cup, FA Cup. Barcelona can still win the domestic double (LaLiga, Copa del Rey).

– Barcelona will not play in a UEFA competition in month of March for first time since 1998-99, when they were eliminated from the Champions League group stage.

– Robert Lewandowski’s penalty was Barcelona’s first penalty kick goal of the season in all competitions.

Up next

Manchester United: Next up is a trip to Wembley where Erik ten Hag will aim for his first trophy with the club, taking on Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup final (11:30 am ET, stream on ESPN+). While they await their next Europa League opponent, United will have an FA Cup tilt against West Ham United on March 1 and then a trio of league matches (Liverpool, Southampton, Brighton & Hove Albion).

Barcelona: The LaLiga-leading side takes on Almeria on Sunday and then the first leg of the Copa del Rey semifinals against Real Madrid on March (3 p.m. ET, stream on ESPN+). Some big matches in the league (Valencia, Athletic Club) before the league El Clasico against Real on March 19. All those matches are also on ESPN+.

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