Manchester United is in good health and swept aside Barcelona at Old Trafford. There are rivals and stages that are still inaccessible for a Barcelona team that cannot find its place in Europe. The Mancunians are a better team, have a better squad and are more electric than the Catalans. Ten Hag did not stop putting forwards until they won the game, while Xavi did not stop looking at his defenders after a long-suffering and sterile exercise of resistance in the Europa League. Lewandowski’s goal only served to fulfill with decorum a withdrawal that was seen coming since Barcelona players began to fall and United’s offensive fever increased. It is well known that Barcelona concede two goals per game in continental matches, nothing to do with their La Liga record, and they rediscovered defeat, which they had not known since October, when they lost to Bayern Munich precisely in a continental match.
Xavi recovered the formula of the four midfielders even despite the absence of Pedri and Gavi, the players who give identity to the team; the player from Tenerife for his composure and finesse and the Andalusian for his blessed madness and ever competitive nature, even more so against opponents as intense as United. The Barcelona players were interested, as always, in having the ball and finishing the moves while avoiding the transitions of an English team that, except for Lisandro Martinez, had the same line-up as in the first leg. Ten Hag was hurt by that 2-2 draw after his players wasted enough chances -in the coach’s words- to finish off the tie at the Camp Nou.
The start of the match was a testament to Ten Hag’s gamble. Ter Stegen responded very well to a point-blank shot from Bruno Fernandes. United pressed hard and very high before the roar of Old Trafford. Barcelona kept losing the ball; physically inferior, unable to withstand the English pace, too exposed to the tackles of Bruno Fernandes, Rashford and Sancho, pushed by Casemiro. The only Barcelona man to break free from the straitjacket put on by United was Balde. The full-back was innocently hooked by Bruno Fernandes’ arm on a turn inside the box and the referee blew for a penalty that Lewandowski converted. The goal came as a surprise for a Barcelona team that was keeping a close eye on Ter Stegen’s area.
Despite the fact that the possession of the ball seemed a pipe dream in such an intense duel, the Barcelona midfielders stringed together more passes than United’s. Kessié ran non-stop; Sergi Roberto played simply, reading the game as only the Masia boys know how to do; De Jong jumped and helped cover Balde; and Busquets corrected and directed, the kingpin of the game and a support point for Barcelona’s defenders and forwards. The Englishmen deflated and stopped intimidating Ter Stegen. The physicality of Balde, fast and quick, was more unbalancing than that of Rashford. The second goal did not come because Sergi Roberto, so neat in his game but not very decisive, forgave a De Gea gift.
Ten Hag intervened at half-time and challenged Barcelona with two wingers after resorting to Antony and dispensing with striker Weghorst. Barcelona panicked and conceded the equalizer after a mistake by Kessié on the edge of the box that Fred punished. Both teams’ mistakes made the match more balanced and vibrant than well-played despite the noise at Old Trafford. The fans were once again inflamed after United’s awakening. Ter Stegen’s goal was under constant pressure. Xavi, however, was slow to act, probably because the Barcelona players gradually settled again, more present in the opposing half after a header from Koundé was neutralized by De Gea’s hand.
The calmness of the Spanish coach contrasted with the impatience of Ten Hag. The Dutch manager ended up putting together a squad of seemingly unstoppable attackers with the introduction of Garnacho before Xavi withdrew Sergi Roberto and opted for Ferran Torres. The game was already back and forth and it seemed to make more sense to add a third striker than to keep an inside player while waiting for Araujo to recover. The Catalans, weaker in the disputed balls, could not hold on and after possession was won by Fernandes, it led to Antony’s goal and the United comeback.
Barcelona could not recover from the 2-1 scoreline, even though the match ended in De Gea’s area. The scoreline escapes from the La Liga leaders’ catalog of cruel European defeats. Despite competing well, the Catalans could not contain an ambitious and rampant United at Old Trafford. The Theater of Dreams ended the triumphant march of a Barcelona side that is equally bad at the Champions League and the Europa League.
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