Manchester United and Barcelona don’t do boring, not even in the Europa League. One of the great match-ups in European football produced a spectacle befitting its top billing at a packed Nou Camp.
Marcus Rashford lit up the old place and threatened to give United their first ever victory here over Barcelona as United came back to lead with 24 minutes left.
Barca boss Xavi had described Rashford as one of Europe’s most dangerous strikers and he looked like it as he claimed his 14th goal in 16 games, playing in a central role that isn’t meant to bring out the best of him. Who says?
But after going ahead through Marcos Alonso, Barcelona levelled through another familiar face in the Premier League, Raphinha, to leave this tie all square going into next week’s second leg at Old Trafford.
What a first leg it was. End to end, blow for blow. Two of Europe’s greats playing like it was a Champions League final at stake not a place in the Europa League last 16. The 94,000 fans in the Nou Camp loved it and both teams deserve huge credit.
Marcos Alonso got the hosts off to a strong start in the second period opening the scoring in the 50th minute of the match
Marcus Rashford scored his fourth in as many games just two minutes later to draw the visitors back level
An own goal from Jules Kounde then allowed the Red Devils to take the lead just nine minutes after having gone behind
Raphinha equalised to make it 2-2 on 76 minutes to deny the visitors a crucial first leg win in the Europa League play-off
‘I think we can put together a good counter-attack but we have to bring them out of their comfort zone, we have to press them high when we can. We have players who are capable of playing so we have to play,’ said United boss Erik ten Hag before kick-off.
‘It is great to be here, there is a line of Dutch players and managers here with Barcelona but I am here for Manchester United and we want to win and win in a Manchester United way.’
With Lisandro Martinez and new loan signing Marcel Sabitzer suspended, Ten Hag was boosted by the return of Casemiro who had served two thirds of a three-match domestic ban but was free to play in Europe. The United boss again played Luke Shaw on the left side of central defence to deputise for Martinez, and chose the more defensive option of Aaron Wan-Bissaka over Diogo Dalot at right-back. It wasn’t his intention to play cautiously, however.
If Ten Hag’s team selection was no big surprise, his tactics certainly weren’t what we were expecting: a 4-1-4-1 formation that had Casemiro playing on his own in front of the back-four and Rashford through the middle. Bruno Fernandes was on the right flank and Jadon Sancho switched to the left, which allowed 6ft 6in striker Wout Weghorst to drop deeper in an attempt to dominate midfield – or at the very least prevent Frenkie de Jong and Franck Kessie dominating.
It worked as well. United had by far the best of the first half and created the better chances. Ten Hag’s only real complaint could be that his team didn’t have a goal or two to show for it, and let in Barca a couple of times with some sloppy defending.
A game that kicked off at 5.45pm UK time not long after the dipped below the cavernous bowl that makes up the Nou Camp was only 20 seconds old when Fernandes got free on the right and whipped in a cross. Fred, of all people, was the most advanced United player and only inches away from connecting in front of goal.
United’s positive start was punctuated by three chances for the home side in the space of 11 minutes. Robert Lewandowski engineered enough space in the box for a shot which David de Gea beat away, former Chelsea defender Alonso curled a free kick over on the edge of the box after Fred had fouled the lively Gavi, and Jordi Alba volleyed narrowly over when his header from Gavi’s looped pass bounced back to him off Shaw.
But United re-asserted themselves and should really have been ahead before half-time. The best chance fell to Weghorst who had ventured forward into plenty of space when Fernandes clipped a pass into him in the 28th minute. The ball held up just a little too much and bounced several times as the Dutchman waited for it to reach him. By the time it did, Marc-Andre ter Stegen had rushed out to block Weghorst’s shot.
The in-form England star equalised for his side in the 52nd minute of the game to continue his own rich purple patch
David de Gea was rooted to the spot anticipating a touch from start striker Robert Lewandowski from Raphinha’s cross in
The Barca keeper rescued his side again six minutes later when Rashford got free in the box and tried to catch out Ter Stegen with an early effort scooped towards the far post with his right foot, but he was thwarted by a one-handed save.
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
BARCELONA (4-3-3): Ter Stegen 6; Kounde 5, Araujo 6, Alonso 7 (Christensen 67), Alba 6.5 (Balde 67, 6); Pedri 6.5 (Roberto 41, 7), De Jong 7, Kessie 6.5 (Fati 67, 6); Raphinha 7 (F Torres 83), Lewandowski 6.5, Gavi 7.5.
Subs: Garcia, Sotorres, Casado, Torre, Tenas, Alarcon.
Scorers: Alonso 50, Raphinha 76
Booked: Alba, Gavi
Manager: Xavi Hernandez 7
MAN UTD (4-1-4-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6.5, Varane 6.5, Shaw 7, Malacia 6 ; Casemiro 6; Fernandes 6.5, Weghorst 5.5, Fred 7, Sancho 5 (Garnacho 82); Rashford 8.
Subs: Lindelof, Maguire, Dalot, Heaton, Pellistri, Butland, Elanga, Garnacho, Iqbal, Mainoo.
Scorers: Rashford 52, Kounde og 59
Booked: Varane, Casemiro, Malacia
Manager: Erik ten Hag 7
Referee: Maurizio Mariani (Italy) 7
The Catalans were unbeaten in their previous 16 games, however, and didn’t any encouragement to threaten again. But United gave it to them in the 37th minute when Casemiro played a pass across his box to Wan-Bissaka who allowed the ball to bounce across him and straight to Alba who stole in on goal. Wan-Bissaka recovered just in time to take the sting out of the shot and De Gea did the rest, blocking at his near post.
Barcelona will have been disappointed with their first-half performance and emerged for the second period determined to make up for it. Former Leeds favourite Raphinha had already sent a 20-yard effort whistling past the far post when he assisted on the opening goal in the 50th minute.
The Brazilian swung over a cross from the right towards the back post where Alonso had already taken up position after peeling away from Fred.
The United midfielder had got his body shape all wrong and was facing the wrong way entirely by the time Alonso rose to plant a downward header past inside De Gea’s near post.
To United’s credit, they roared straight back and equalised just two minutes later. Casemiro fed the ball to Fred who turned into space and spotted Rashford’s run. The Brazilian slipped a pass in between Alba and Alonso, the latter chasing Rashford as he broke into the box.
United’s in-form striker looked to have taken the ball too wide with his first touch, and a cross seemed like the better option. But Rashford is playing with so much confidence at the moment that he fancied his chances and rifled a shot past Ter Stegen at his near post.
The United fans housed high up in the Nou Camp celebrated and it got even better seven minutes later when Rashford created a second goal.
Shaw played a short corner to him and, again, the easier option seemed to be to take the ball to the left, away from Raphinha who appeared to have him covered. Instead, Rashford suddenly dipped to the right where there was almost no space, and Raphinha was out of the equation. Rashford raced along the byeline and crossed to the edge of the six-yard box where Fernandes helped the ball on and the hapless Jules Kounde bundled the ball over his own goal line.
Erik ten Hag said before the game that he wanted his side to take Barcelona out of their ‘comfort zone’ at the Nou Camp
Rashford was flying now and he had a penalty appeal turned down shortly afterwards when he was clipped by Kounde, although contact was made just outside the box and Italian referee Maurizio Mariani wasn’t buying it anyway.
Barca boss Xavi made a triple substitution, sending on Andreas Christensen, Ansu Fati and Alex Balde, but there was nothing tactical about the equaliser in the 76th minute. Casemiro will be furious with himself that he gave away possession cheaply with a poor pass on the edge of his own box and the ball was moved quickly out to Raphinha on the right.
He whipped in a cross with his left foot and the presence of Lewandowski only seemed to confuse United as the Pole failed to get a touch on the ball which flew through Varane’s legs and past De Gea.
Barcelona so nearly got a winner as well as they hit the post late on, but a draw was the fairest outcome here.
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