Friday 17 February 2023

European giants serve up a cinematic thriller

Someone at UEFA had a very warped sense of humour when Manchester United and Barcelona were drawn together in the Europa League.
Yet, from the moment Xavi's La Liga champions-elect dropped out of the Champions League, there seemed a sense of fate, a sense of inevitability, that these two mighty monoliths would be pitted against each other.

The cynic in me wondered whether it was always UEFA's plan, to make sure Barcelona didn't get out of their group and then to engineer a situation where we would meet them: what better way of marketing the Europa League and increasing their viewing figures. The fact this was the first tie drawn out with minimal effort only added to my suspicions. 

Paul Scholes thumps home that goal in 2008.

A game fit for the final was, instead, merely a play-off, a passage into the last 16 of Europe's second-tier tournament. Whilst it epitomised quite how far these two giants had fallen - twelve years on from a Wembley meeting in the Champions League final - one thing was certain: this would surely be the most hotly anticipated Europa League match-up of all time. 

The hype and sense of occasion for this one far outstripped anything we will see in the Champions League this year. Indeed, perhaps only December's World Cup final, Messrs Messi and Mbappe and all, came close on the excitement scale. It is unlikely you will see a better spectacle even at the very apex of Europe's top table this season. 

Indeed, when United - heads bowed and with tails firmly between the legs - stalked off that pitch as beaten finalists in 2011, no one would have believed you if you had said this would be a second-tier knockout playoff game twelve years on. Both teams are striving to once again rescale the heights of those heady days and, on this evidence, are firmly on track to do so. 

And so the stage was set: two of the world's biggest and most successful historic sides in a heavyweight duel, like two heavyweight boxers renewing acquaintances after a decade in the doldrums. Whilst the tie may have lacked quite the same stellar, star-studded and A-list names associated with this storied fixture, merely the mention of Manchester United and Barcelona is enough to set collective pulses racing. 

This was a heavyweight collision for the ages, two giants coming together in front of the world to recreate the halcyon days of yesteryear: football royalty par excellence. Thursday's thriller did not disappoint to produce a simply stunning, magnificent match in which two of the continent's most in-form sides went at it hammer and tong over 92 captivating and mesmerising minutes -  a Champions League work of art on loan in the Europa League. United had chances, and some big ones too: Wout Weghorst should have scored when one on one, Marc - Andre ter Stegen tipped wide from Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho could also have netted. 

Although the first half was scoreless, it was still fascinating. Xavi deployed the wonderfully named Ronald Araujo at right-back, a ploy he used against Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior. The Barcelona manager had expected his United counterpart to utilise our main threat, Rashford, on the left. But instead, Sancho was out there with Fernandes stationed on the right and our no.10 down the middle. 

Barcelona more than played their own part in arguably the best game of the season so far. Ultimately, a draw was probably the fairest outcome but the Reds will be confident of completing the mission back on terra firma next week having flexed their muscles and gone about our business in an emphatic fashion here. Throw in the fact the Old Trafford fortress will be rocking, Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are back from suspension and the fact Barcelona are without Gavi and Pedri, and you can see why United and Erik ten Hag will be delighted with their night's work. Of course, the job is not done yet but we've cleared the hardest hurdle and will be marginal favourites at a ground where we're unbeaten since September.
It is the epitome of just how far this side has come we're disappointed with a draw at the Nou Camp only six months on from the Brighton and Brentford eviscerations. That, more than anything, speaks volumes of the impact ten Hag has had. 

Barcelona may be on course for a 27th Spanish title, eight points clear having conceded only seven goals in the league all season, but, great rivals Real Madrid, aside, rarely will they have witnessed an opposition side come to the fabled Nou Camp and play like this. At times, they simply could not live with a sensational and swashbuckling wave of white. United pressed high and hassled Barcelona into submission. We played them off the park at times and, although we understandably tired in the closing minutes, Xavi's men will have been the team more relieved to hear the whistle. 

For this United team is now one with the Dutchman's paw prints all over it. Resilient, relentless, together and capable of scoring at will. We are better organised, more confident both individually and as a team, we keep our shape effectively and our press is devastating. 

His ideas are left-field but who are we to question when they always seem to work? He had Weghorst in central midfield: while the Burnley loanee offered little attacking threat he contributed so much to the cause. Weghorst is doing a job for now; we need an upgrade in the summer but ten Hag is both delivering and rebuilding. 

ten Hag has reinvigorated and revitalised nearly everyone in a United shirt through simplicity and clarity. His methods work and he is a disciplinarian but fair with it. The players know where they stand and respect him for it. 

As the old adage says, the sequel is rarely better than the original but it's all to play for under the lights at Old Trafford as a huge week beckons for United. 

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