Talking points from Old Trafford

Thursday 23 February 2023 17:31

Manchester United disposed of Barcelona in the Europa League play-off with a brilliant 2-1 win at Old Trafford, progressing 4-3 on aggregate.

The Reds had to do it the hard way, trailing at the break to a Robert Lewandowski penalty, but turned things around through Brazilians Fred and substitute Antony.

On a night to remember at the Theatre of Dreams, this was something special to savour as the celebrations following the final whistle showed the passion and emotion of the players.

Let us not forget Barcelona are eight points clear of Real Madrid, who demolished Liverpool 5-2 at Anfield earlier this week, at the top of La Liga.

We run you through key topics arising from a classic victory for Erik ten Hag's men...

United 2 Barcelona 1


The Reds reach the last 16 of the Europa League on a thrilling night at Old Trafford.


While Barcelona only named nine substitutes, two of those goalkeepers, there was plenty of quality on our bench. Antony was included after recovering from injury, while Marcel Sabitzer was named in reserve after being suspended for the first leg. With Alejandro Garnacho always a wildcard and capable of exposing tiring legs, the Reds looked healthy before kick-off, with only Anthony Martial, Donny van de Beek and Christian Eriksen absent, all through injury.


Bruno Fernandes had a slight tug on Alejandro Balde as he was running away from goal and referee Clement Turpin had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. VAR decided not to overturn the decision, much to United’s frustration. When you consider the challenge on Marcus Rashford that was not given as a foul in the first leg, the sense of injustice burned bright, particularly when David De Gea got a hand to Lewandowski’s penalty but could not keep it out.


After being named on the bench, our Brazil winger warmed up on the pitch during the interval and replaced Wout Weghorst at the start of the second half. With the Carabao Cup final to come on Sunday, it was refreshing to see the South American in red again, for the first time since he hobbled off against Crystal Palace. He quickly caused problems down the right flank, forcing a desperate tackle out of Andreas Christensen. However, his key contribution was, of course, curling past Marc-Andre ter Stegen with that trusty left foot to net the winner.


Exploding on to Fernandes's pass like a flash, Fred fired home with his right foot to level the scores, two minutes after the restart. It's his fifth goal of the season and his first in Europe since a brave against Club Brugge a couple of days over two years ago. The no.17's work in the 58th minute also drew great acclaim from the crowd, as he kept running down the left wing and, when the ball eventually came back to him, he again showed some neat skill. It was an energetic display by Fred, whose name was sung by the Stretford End after his on-pitch interview duties at the end.


De Gea may have been close to keeping out the penalty but he made a crucial stop after 64 minutes, when stretching to push away a Jules Kounde effort. The France international scored an own goal in the first leg and was close to putting the Catalans back in front, only for our long-serving shot-stopper to once again prove his worth. It was obviously a vital interception, in the end, just was Raphael Varane's goalline clearance deep into stoppage time. This was another defensive masterclass against one of the best attacks in Europe.


Just as when he was less than impressed with the first-half display against Leicester City and changed things around, the boss worked his magic again here. A change in system benefited the Reds, and one of the substitutes, Antony, delivered a telling blow. The sweet 73rd-minute strike was the sixth in the Europa League by a sub for the Reds this term, more than any other side in the competition. 

Rio x Bruno: Between the Lines Video

Rio x Bruno: Between the Lines

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There is no better place to be on nights like this. Sir Alex Ferguson, spotted having dinner with Ten Hag earlier in the week, enjoyed it and he was sat next to Howard Wikinson, the former Leeds United manager and an old foe when his side pipped us to the title in the last year of the old First Division (1991/92). The players certainly enjoyed themselves, Bruno roared to the crowd even before proceedings were over, when getting a decision his way. As everybody celebrated, some fans chanted 'Frenkie, Frenkie, what's the score?' as the Dutchman made his way off the pitch. He performed well in defeat but this was all about the men in red and a win to savour.  


The round-of-16 draw takes place in Nyon at 11:00 GMT on Friday. United are unseeded, along with all the other play-off winners, and will meet a seeded team, one of the group winners. We know we will be at home in the first leg on 9 March.


This was a huge occasion against one of the world's best teams but, for all the investment in this tie, the fans were still singing about Wembley towards the end, and the fact that we can hope to lift the first trophy of the Ten Hag era. The Carabao Cup contest with Newcastle United is next on the agenda, as the big fixtures keep coming for the in-form Reds.


The only possible concern after a pulsating  victory was the fact leading scorer Rashford looked in some discomfort as he made his way towards the tunnel, following the final whistle. The striker appeared to get hurt in a challenge with Ronald Araujo. Casemiro also took a heavy blow to his ankle from Lewandowski but managed to play on.