Barcelona and Manchester United grace Europa League Playoff Round with an instant classic
Think we can all agree that was a lot more “Barcelona v Manchester United” than it was “Europa League Playoff Round”.
If there was a question about whether Barcelona v Manchester United would elevate the Europa League Playoff Round or the Europa League Playoff Round would drag Barcelona v Manchester United down to its level it was emphatically answered with a barnstorming European clash at Camp Nou.
In truth, this was always a bit of a quirk. Neither of these colossal teams really quite fit the “fallen giants” narrative right now. Both have emerged out the other side of their darkest times and appear well on the way to a return to better times. Barcelona were here because they made a mess of a tough Champions League group, United because they lost carelessly to Real Sociedad early in the Europa League group stage when Erik Ten Hag was in the very early stages of the daunting but increasingly impressive reboot of a club that had been flailing around aimlessly for a decade.
The teams who have met in three European finals, including Champions League finals as recently as 2009 and 2011, found themselves paired in a Europa League Playoff Round was undeniably amusing. But this was a game to put this week’s Champions League last-16 efforts to shame. Ignore the second tier label of the competition, this was the standout European game of the week.
It’s usually a pretty good sign when a game ends all square and both teams can argue with some justification that they ought to have won it. United saw less of the ball but created the clearer chances in a high-quality first half, with Wout Weghorst particularly guilty of not doing enough to beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen when exquisitely played through by the relentless Bruno Fernandes. Marcus Rashford too might have done slightly better, albeit with a tougher chance, when his dink-clip effort lacked sufficient oomph to beat the keeper.
If the first half had everything but goals. The second put that right without the quality or pace letting up for a moment. Both teams pressed high, forcing defensive errors and winning the ball high up the field. Both teams created a series of chances and if one were minded to be critical there could be fingers pointed in various directions for all four goals, and at assorted attackers for the chances not taken.
It feels mean-spirited, though, and to rather miss the point. This was a game of forced not unforced errors, of high standards and fine margins between two teams who on current form would unquestionably take their place among the 16 best teams – not just the biggest clubs – the continent has to offer.
United had brilliant performances all over the field, Raphael Varane marshalling Robert Lewandowski admirably and Casemiro again magnificent in breaking up the opposition’s play and instigating United’s on a ground where his Clasico record has few blemishes.
Best of all, though, and not for the first time was Rashford. His emergence into his final form this season has been a joy and he was superb again tonight. He is such a clever and confident player now, and has seemingly perfected the art of getting himself between defender and ball with balletic footwork and upper-body muscle. Having done that, he nearly always delivers something. His 11th goal of 2023 was fired inside a disappointed Ter Stegen’s near post, and he was instrumental in the second, skipping round defenders before crossing into the centre where Bruno’s flick left Jules Kounde unable to do anything other than divert the ball into his own net.
Either side of that quickfire double, Marcos Alonso headed Barcelona into a short-lived lead and the ebullient Raphinha’s cross evaded Lewandowski and everyone else to nestle in the bottom corner. It was a goal Raphinha thoroughly deserved, delivered a result few could really quibble with and perfectly sets up a not-to-be-missed second leg in a week’s time at Old Trafford. United could easily have extended their lead at 2-1. Barcelona could easily have landed a winner in a frantic finale. Both will feel righteously confident of progressing to the last 16, and from there winning the whole thing.
It seems perverse on tonight’s and all other recent evidence that one of these sides will be out of Europe a week from now, but with the prizes still on offer elsewhere and the way they’re both playing it may well be that meeting so early works out for the best for both of them. The benefits to the winner are obvious, but given the quality of the contest and the fact the loser will be able to leave the competition with heads held high. There are worse ways to go out.
Certainly, both teams brought the very best out of the other but if you’re going to go out of the Europa it might as well be early at the hands of a fellow giant. No shame, no need for it to derail anything else. There’s no point playing Thursday nights unless you’re going to win the whole thing. Far better to go out now than lose, exhausted, in the semi-finals.
United absolutely should have done more on the final day of the group stage to try and find the second goal that would have lifted them above Sociedad into top spot; it was a complete free hit with second place long guaranteed. But having landed these unwanted extra games, they might as well be against Barca. Especially when those games are this insanely good.