It was not meant to be for Barcelona at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford. The Catalans put up a valiant show and even led for a significant part of the game, but yet another collapse turned to picture upside down in just 45 minutes.
Robert Lewandowski would open the scoring on the night and help Barcelona enter the half-time break with a lead. However, a quickfire equaliser by Fred after the restart and an Antony winner later in the half helped Erik ten Hag’s men get over the line.
The result means that Barcelona will no longer compete in the UEFA Europa League with the Red Devils taking a deserved place in the last 16. Barça Universal brings you three talking points from Manchester United vs Barcelona.
1. An impressive first half
Going purely by the opening 45 minutes at Old Trafford, anyone would place their money on Barcelona to go through.
The Catalans only had a one-goal lead on aggregate heading into the tunnel at half-time. Yet, they had managed to take the game to Manchester United at Old Trafford for the better part of 45 minutes and were clearly the better team.
When off the ball, Xavi’s men pressed high and tirelessly, much like their special display in the Spanish Super Cup final. Manchester United seemed to struggle to string a sequence of passes without being intercepted, and there was a real energy about the midfield.
The Catalans recorded an xG of close to 1 in the half as opposed to the hosts’ 0.5 and asked one or two questions of David de Gea.
Had the game continued with the same trend in the second period, Barcelona could have been the ones celebrating on the night. However, what followed after the break was an irreversible mental and physical collapse.
2. The embarrassing collapse
Coming out of the tunnel after half-time, all that Barcelona needed to do was maintain the pressure by keeping their lead. Yet, it only took a minute for the Blaugrana to fall apart after the break.
Almost embarrassingly, Xavi’s formidable defence allowed the ball to run across the field into Fred. The Brazilian was open in front of goal with no defender even remotely close to him. Barcelona had switched off, and Manchester United did not need much more to get level.
From that point on, it was one-way traffic. Having conceded a goal, the Catalan defence appeared to head into a state of self-doubt and the performance only went downhill from thereon.
Instead of fuelling the fire to find another goal, Barcelona began making mistakes all over. Ronald Araujo’s poor positioning almost cost his side and Jules Kounde misplaced several passes straight into the United forwards. Andreas Christensen showed nerves too, clearing the ball right into Antony and gifting a big chance for Ten Hag’s side.
As the midfield tired out, Ten Hag unleashed his hidden weapons in Alejandro Garnacho and Diogo Dalot to inject freshness into his team. Xavi, meanwhile, had no real options on the bench barring Ferran Torres, and his leggy midfield arguably cost him the game.
Eventually, the Catalans conceded another shameful goal that proved to be the winner for United. The goal was a gift from the visitors who just had to clear the ball to avoid the nerve-wracking situation in front of the goal.
The story could have been very different with Gavi, Pedri and Dembele. Yet, there is never room for excuses in the world of football.
3. Eyeing domestic glory
Barcelona’s second elimination from European football in the same season means the end of their run outside Spain. There are not many ways to see the Europa League defeat with good eyes, but the perspective of the team now having a definite focus with better rest sounds acceptable.
Barcelona remain competitive only on two fronts now – La Liga and Copa del Rey.
Xavi’s men have an eight-point lead over Real Madrid and are on track to win it all come May. If they can maintain their consistency and high level, the title is theirs to lose.
The case with the cup is more difficult. Up against Real Madrid in the two-legged semifinals, the men in garnet-and-blue must fight hard to stay alive in the competition. After all, Real Madrid have proven to be the kings of comebacks in recent years.
With the Spanish Super Cup under their belt, the domestic treble is a real possibility for Barcelona. What is important, however, is to not allow Thursday’s result to have any bearing on the team’s performance or morale.