Ten Hag proves Man United’s greatest weapon as turnaround downs Barca

Dave Tickner
Manchester United's Antony celebrates scoring their side's second goal of the game during the UEFA Europa League playoff match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Thursday February 23, 2023.

We’d surprised ourselves by spending all week looking forward to a Europa League Play-off Round game, but the first leg between Barcelona and Manchester United was such tremendous fun.

But then today we panicked and started to worry. What if this second leg is just a bit shit? At least if you get a Champions League game that’s a bit shit, it will still have been a Champions League game. If this was a bit shit, it would become just a Europa League Play-off Round game. Which is of no value.

We’re delighted to report those fears were unjustified. This was, just like the first leg, absolutely tremendous. Even United’s otherwise perplexing decision to be really quite alarmingly rubbish in the first half was in the end just a crucial element of the drama, setting the stage for the stunning second-half transformation that sent United freewheeling into a last-16 where, despite being unseeded, they will surely be the outright favourites.

And Barcelona will have to console themselves with a probable La Liga title after seeing their European involvement ended at such an early stage. Still, it’s not like the club’s financial security is based alarmingly heavily on money from European football, so that’s fine.

But there’s a serious point buried there. Barcelona may have made a bollocks of the Champions League, but they’ve been flying domestically and played really very well indeed across both legs of this game. And United have beaten them, and they have deserved to beat them.

United were the better side for most of last week’s first leg and might never have played better under Erik Ten Hag than they did in the second half here once the manager acknowledged his initial errors and expertly, surgically corrected them via one half-time substitution and positional reshuffle.

It feels quite strange after the last decade or so to watch United be this disappointing in the first half of a game and yet once again find yourself with Ferguson-era certainty that the manager will right the wrongs at half-time.

Because at half-time, this was definitely going wrong. After an early chance when Bruno Fernandes was superbly sent clear by Casemiro, it had been Barcelona firmly on top and deservedly ahead. There were reasons to grumble about the penalty, but also not really. Bruno Fernandes’ offence in linking arms with Alejandro Balde was small and twatty, but it was also pretty obvious and went on for quite a long time. The fact the Barcelona man was also heading unthreateningly away from goal also added to the aesthetic if not actual issues with the decision. It was a curious thing: a clear penalty that didn’t really look like one in at least three different ways.

And then Robert Lewandowski did one of those dreadful run-ups yer da hates so much and very nearly got embarrassed by David De Gea. It was an annoying goal all round, but by half-time it was hard to argue with Barcelona’s advantage. Only a last-gasp Casemiro intervention after some De Gea fannying about kept it to a single goal.

Barcelona’s attacks were frequent and threatening, United’s spasmodic and stodgy. Nobody seemed to be enjoying their role, with the unfortunate Wout Weghorst as a number nine, Bruno lost on the right, Marcus Rashford anonymous on the left and Jadon Sancho a lost and confused number 10.

Antony’s introduction after the break shuffled everyone into far more acceptable positions for United: Bruno central, Rashford ahead of him, Antony on the right, Sancho on the left, Weghorst on the bench. It was instantly much better; the equaliser took less than 90 seconds and involved the newly redeployed Sancho and Bruno before Fred applied the unlikely but precise finishing touches.

It wasn’t quite one-way traffic after that, but it was remarkably more one-sided than the three halves of football that preceded it. A United winner always felt likely. United knew it, the crowd knew it and perhaps most importantly Barcelona knew it.

Antony was the man to get it in the end, finding an inch-perfect sidefoot finish for a bouncing ball that gave such a technique a remarkably high difficulty tariff. Keeping that ball below the crossbar would have been impressive; finding the bottom corner remarkable.

Any lingering doubts that this magnificent tie between two genuine European superpowers had it all were dispelled by Bruno ensuring we could tick off the final box on our sheet when he picked up a yellow card for hoofing the ball directly into Frenkie De Jong’s penis.

Just a magnificent European tie in every possible way, guys. Magnificent. No notes.