Barcelona 2 – 2 Manchester United. Manchester United and Barcelona contested a thrilling first-leg draw at the Nou Camp to leave their Europa League play-off tie finely poised.
Having previously met in two Champions League finals – both of which Barca won – the sides are on the path to recovery in trying to reach those heady heights again.
This encounter in Europe’s secondary competition was another step on that road back to the top.
Xavi’s men grabbed the opener when Marcos Alonso headed in at the back post from Raphinha’s corner, but United responded immediately through the in-form Marcus Rashford as he slipped in a finish at the near post.
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Erik ten Hag’s side showed their resilience to turn the game around as Rashford’s cross was then turned into his own net by Barcelona defender Jules Kounde.
But United could not hold on as ex-Leeds winger Raphinha’s cross from wide on the right sailed all the way into the net.
Barca, though, almost snatched a late victory when Casemiro’s attempted clearance struck his own post, but little separated the sides heading into next Thursday’s second leg at Old Trafford.
The two fallen giants of European football are rebuilding their reputations this season.
They meet at this juncture after Barca went out of the Champions League group stage for the second consecutive season, while United’s second-placed finish in their Europa League group provided this extra play-off to navigate.
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Red Devils boss Ten Hag said both sides “belong in the Champions League” – which will be the key priority come the end of the campaign – but progression from this knockout tie will see them reach the last 16 of the Europa League.
It was a stunning spectacle which ebbed and flowed, but the 90 minutes provided no indication as to which side will go through, setting up a fascinating return leg.
United suffered a 3-0 defeat on their last visit to Barcelona under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2019, but the measure of their recent revival showed as they went toe-to-toe this time and almost came away with a famous victory.
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An early spell of pressure saw Robert Lewandowski’s powerful drive pushed out by David de Gea and Alonso curled a free-kick over.
But United grew into the game and their first clear-cut opportunity fell to Wout Weghorst as the Dutchman latched onto Bruno Fernandes’ through-ball but his low shot was kept out by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
It was the sort of chance visiting teams dream of getting at the Nou Camp and the German goalkeeper then made a superb, full-stretch save to stop Rashford’s curling effort.
The La Liga leaders went ahead on 50 minutes when Alonso headed in, but United levelled just two minutes later when Rashford smashed in his 22nd goal of a superb campaign, matching his best scoring tally for the club.
England forward also played a major part in the 59th-minute second goal, skipping past his marker and delivering a dangerous cross that France defender Kounde bundled into his own net.
Raphinha’s fortunate strike, which seemed more of a cross intended for Lewandowski, made it honours even again 14 minutes from time.
Both sides continued to pile forward and substitute Ansu Fati was also denied by De Gea as Barcelona came closest to a winner.
United face a pivotal week in their quest for success this season, hosting Barcelona on Thursday before playing Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final the following Sunday as they aim to win their first trophy since the Europa League in 2017.
source – BBC