Match report: Barcelona 2 United 2
Manchester United and Barcelona produced a night of football that will live long in the memory as the Reds emerged from the Nou Camp with a creditable 2-2 draw in the first leg of our Europa League play-off tie.
The first half was lively enough, with the Reds unfortunate not to go in ahead at the break, before three goals in eight second-half minutes – all before the hour mark – saw United overturn Marcos Alonso’s opener, through Marcus Rashford's equaliser and a Jules Kounde own-goal.
United looked as though we might run away with it at one stage, but as the visitors did in the first half, Barça grew back into the game and after Raphina’s equaliser, we withstood a period of pressure to ensure the tie remains in the balance heading into next week’s second leg at Old Trafford.
Erik ten Hag felt his team had a good plan coming into the game and the Reds overcame a strong Barça start to create a wealth of first-half opportunities.
Bruno Fernandes was at the core of United’s early play, flashing a dangerous cross in front of goal inside 30 seconds.
He then connected with Rashford’s cross and had a shot well blocked by Jordi Alba minutes later, before Tyrell Malacia’s follow-up was also smothered.
Those chances aside, it was an opening 20 minutes edged by the home side. Robert Lewandowski, facing United for the first time in a competitive match, nudged the ball clear of Luke Shaw in the ninth minute to shoot left-footed across goal, but David De Gea palmed his strike clear.
Marcos Alonso stood over a free-kick at the end of a probing move moments later but whipped his effort inches over De Gea’s crossbar, and exciting youngsters Gavi and Pedri combined as the latter fired over on the volley.
A loose Jules Kounde backpass gifted the Reds a corner and it was perhaps from that point where the tide of the first half began to turn.
Ten Hag’s men proceeded to create four fantastic chances within five minutes, as Aaron Wan-Bissaka pulled back to Sancho who swept a first-time shot just wide with the help of a Frenkie de Jong deflection.
Fernandes was then again in the thick of it, with a sensational ball through the middle to find Weghorst, but Ter Stegen kept out the Dutchman’s strike with his feet, and Casemiro was next to benefit from Bruno’s vision as he nodded a header straight at the Barça ‘keeper.
Rashford was next to get sight of goal, running on to Sancho’s pass down the left channel, with our no.10 striking early to draw Ter Stegen into another smart save.
Barça began to find some rhythm again before the break as Wan-Bissaka was forced into a superb last-ditch challenge on Alba, but it was the Reds who headed into the break having had the better opportunities.
SECOND HALF – REDS RALLY
An end-to-end tone for the second half was immediately set as both sides had chances to score, even before the net had bulged.
Raphinha had struck marginally wide with a vicious strike, and Sancho side-footed agonisingly past the post at the other end, before two former Premier League players combined for the opener as Raphinha’s corner found Alonso at the back post, where he nodded into the ground and beyond De Gea.
The Reds were not downhearted, though, showing great resolve to turn the game on its head in the following eight minutes. Fred threaded a brilliant pass down the right side of the area to find Rashford, who produced an inch-perfect finish to beat Ter Stegen at his near post.
Rashford was in imperious mood as he then played a significant role in the goal to send us ahead. Our no.10 turned Raphinha inside out from a short corner and his resulting cross was flicked on by Fernandes to leave Kounde with no time to react when the ball struck him at the back post, and diverted into the back of the net.
Rashford and his team-mates were then aggrieved after Kounde’s challenge on him, as the last line of defence, went unpunished with our forward appearing to be dragged down by the Frenchman just outside the box.
Fred ran riot in midfield for much of the night and brought his energy to the edge of the box where he threatened to extend our lead, but curled just wide of the near post.
The Reds were pegged back by a goal almost out of nothing. Raphinha chopped on to his left foot to cross from the right-hand side, and caused such menace with his delivery that it crept inside the far post for the equaliser.
United regrouped again, as Rashford was found with time to shoot in the box shortly after, but this time he cut across the ball and sliced his effort wide.
Ten Hag's side had to ride out a nervy closing period, as De Gea pulled off fine acrobatic saves to deny Raphinha and substitute Ansu Fati. When the Spaniard was beaten, in a pinball-like attack with five minutes to go, the ball fortunately rebounded off the post from Casemiro's clearance, rather than rippling the net. It was a slice of fortune that United maybe merited for our fearless display.
Barça might have won it at the death as Ronald Araujo’s back-post header looked destined for the net, but Malacia made a heroic block to ensure the Reds held on for a valuable draw on a memorable night in Catalonia.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Kounde, Araujo, Alba (Balde 67), Alonso (Christensen 67); Pedri (Roberto 40), De Jong, Kessie (Fati 67); Raphinha (Torres 83), Lewandowski, Gavi.
Subs not used: Torres, Inaki Pena, Garcia, Torre, Arnau, Tenas, Alarcon
Goals: Alonso 50, Raphina 76
Booked: Alba, Gavi
United: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Shaw, Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Sancho (Garnacho 82), Fernandes, Rashford; Weghorst.
Subs not used: Butland, Heaton, Lindelof, Maguire, Dalot, Iqbal, Mainoo, Pellistri, Elanga.
Goals: Rashford 52, Kounde (own goal) 59
Booked: Varane, Casemiro, Malacia