The Manchester United momentum continues and the road to Budapest becomes clearer with this famous victory, a first since 2008 over Barcelona. It was a brilliant team turnaround underpinned by heroic defending and behind it all was another sterling performance from Fred.
A thunderous noise rolled around Old Trafford as Erik ten Hag exited having staged his own Remontada and shown once more how he can change a game. Against Leeds, against Leicester and now here with Barcelona having not read the script in the first half.
It was a sound that hadn’t been heard this loud during decades of this club being in the doldrums. After a summer, maybe two, dominated by talk of Frenkie de Jong joining Manchester United, it would be the man he might well have replaced that would outshine him during the second half.
“His role was to stop Frenkie de Jong, and be like a mosquito all over him. And he did it. A brilliant performance,” Ten Hag said afterwards.
Victorious in 13 of their 16 away games this season – losing to Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Real Madrid – Barcelona had been better than their hosts.
But Fred, starting his seventh successive game in the absence of Christian Eriksen – out until at least mid-April – would drag his side by the horns and turn the tide United’s way.
Only Marcus Rashford (17) has netted more goals for Manchester United at Old Trafford this season than Fred (5), whose shot also led to Antony’s decisive winner.
There were other crucial players on this stage of course. Casemiro’s influence was felt, David de Gea sprung into action to thwart Jules Kounde. In the words of Roy Keane, big players just doing their jobs.
But Fred has so often been the fall guy. Not any more. Not under Ten Hag. Back in his own box to head clear in stoppage time, moments later starting the press from the front.
‘Fred, Fred will tear you apart again’, sang the Stretford End.
“It’s very nice to hear your name sung by the fans,” said Fred, losing his train of thought with a smile as the cries became louder. “It was a good game, but we have to keep going.”
Fred’s transformation typifies all that is good about Ten Hag’s Manchester United, on its way back. And onto Wembley.
Bruno Fernandes talked up Manchester United’s history of great comebacks after the turnaround against Barcelona. He came up with an impressive response of his own on Thursday night.
After firing an early opening straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen when he looked primed to score and then giving away a needless penalty for a tangle with Alejandro Balde, the player Xavi had labelled simply as “the Portuguese guy” was having a night to forget.
But ultimately, he would be at the heart of this statement United win. For the goals, it was his whipped pass which allowed Fred to convert and it was his quick feet which caused the problems which led to Antony’s conversion.
Since his Man Utd debut in February 2020, only four other players have been involved in more goals in major European competitions – Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Robert Lewandowski. He’s up there with the very best for attacking output and looked a real threat when he was moved inside to play No10.
But Fernandes is also about the fire he brings to this team. Wearing the captain’s armband, he is a leader for this side with his attitude – and adds an edge, which was plain to see when he had words with Xavi or booted the ball at the floored Frenkie de Jong. That moment could be an interesting talking point should De Jong arrive as a new signing at Carrington in the summer.
The first half of Man Utd’s season was dominated by talk of another Portuguese guy. But this one will be key to their success on four fronts in the run-in.
Manchester United have had 19 goals scored by substitutes in all competitions this season, the most of any side in Europe’s big five leagues. Antony’s will rank as one of the most important and came following a crucial switch by Erik ten Hag at the interval.
Wout Weghorst has started all 11 games since signing for United last month and is clearly a favourite of his compatriot. But Ten Hag is ruthless enough to recognise when something is not working and his swift swap at half-time helped his team to turn this tie around.
Bruno Fernandes moved to the middle, Jadon Sancho reverted to the left. Rashford went up front and offered that threat in behind. Antony played on the right. It worked. Fernandes set up the equaliser having roamed to the left. Antony scored the winner.
Ten Hag has felt short of options for much of his time in charge. No doubt he will want more next season. But he has already shown himself capable of identifying what is required in a game and finding the solution. It made the difference against Barcelona.
Facing up against one of the world’s best No 9s seems to have fallen to Lisandro Martinez more times than he would care to remember this season.
He’s already taken on Erling Haaland and Harry Kane in the Premier League, Kylian Mbappe on the way to a World Cup winners medal. On Thursday, he faced Robert Lewandowski of Barcelona and came out on top.
Although Lewandowski did score from the penalty spot, he was largely absent. The goal he scored was his only shot of the game and he created no other chances. He had a xG of 0.79.
Martinez had a big influence in keeping the Barcelona forward quiet, as well as the rest of a talented – if not depleted – Barcelona team. He won three of his four tackles, made four clearances and won 70 per cent of his ground duels.
At one point in the first half, with the ball at his feet, Martinez gestured for his team-mates to calm down and keep their cool. And that’s exactly how he played – laser-focused on clearing every ball, making interceptions and keeping Barcelona from spoiling the Old Trafford party.
It was an impressive performance from a player who is growing into his role at Manchester United. If they are to have a chance of winning silverware this season – remember, they are still in all four competitions – Martinez will have a say in their success.