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A 2-2 of many twists, most of all in what a coruscating game represented. Manchester United’s trip to FC Barcelona is after all a famous Champions League fixture that was here an early Europa League play-off first leg, with the lessened pressure eventually bringing heightened entertainment, the Spanish league leaders not really looking like what that phrase has historically meant.
Their defence certainly looked off the level. Having conceded just seven goals in 1,890 minutes of LaLiga football this season, Barcelona suffered two in six minutes here, as United regularly looked like they could score at will – especially the effervescent Marcus Rashford.
He claimed one and set up the other, before offering a last twist in missing a fine chance on this kind of form. That in itself still would have felt a little harsh on Barca, who had enough big chances towards the end themselves. Ansu Fati was their response to Rashford, shifting the game back the other way.
This was the other twist on this fixture. Whereas it has traditionally been Barca who have sought to impose a Cruyffian style on a United willing to wait for their moments, Erik ten Hag has ensured his side now have plenty of the former. Neither currently have enough, though, to have prevented this becoming a rip-roaring back and forth.
It sets up the second leg in a week, just as the initial tactical ideas set up the wondrous second half.
Barcelona inevitably enjoyed more possession but it took a long time to actually do much with it, and much of that period was characterised by United opening them on the wings. Xavi’s side seemed to especially struggle with the pace of Rashford and Sancho, who repeatedly got in behind. Rashford twice brought saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and Sancho shot narrowly wide after brilliant work from Aaron Wan-Bissaka down the right.
The best chance of the first half was undeniably that of Weghorst, though, after a divine through ball from Casemiro. The former Real Madrid midfielder had of course been hearing some choice chants any time he got the ball, but just went and effortlessly picked out the Dutch forward. It was actually an unusual position for Weghorst to find himself in at that point, given he started the game in that sort of false 10 role that Ten Hag has now used more.
Perhaps that explains how his finishing wasn’t at its sharpest, ter Stegan making a strong but routine block.
It fitted with that general theme of the game, though – something slightly strange from the familiar.
So it was that Marcos Alonso scored from a set-piece, but this a header at the far post.
United’s defending for it had been poor, and undermined a good performance up to then. The entire defence failed to deal with Raphinha’s swerving cross, and De Gea was then limply beaten at his near post.
It shouldn’t have gone that far. United shouldn’t have been behind. It at least forced them forward, as if angered by the situation. They were level within minutes.
Casemiro again offered a through ball, but this time to Fred who turned sharply at the edge of the box. He put Rashford through to brilliantly put it inside Ter Stegen at the near post. It was a supreme goal, not unlike those another number-10 used to regularly score.
United were by then in the mood. Within another six minutes, on the hour, they had a second. Rashford had another highlight to add to a superb season. On receiving a short corner, the forward just shredded the Barcelona left side – and especially Raphinha.
Rashford then played a dangerous ball across goal for Bruno Fernandes to flick and Jules Kounde to get an unintentional touch off.
This was what was most striking about Barca’s display by then. Even if they had a lot of the ball, they didn’t really have control. It was almost fitting that was how they equalised.
Raphinha, who had offered an erratic performance, scored something of an erratic goal. Receiving the ball out wide from Kounde, the winger clearly looked to swing in a ball for Robert Lewandowski. The Pole clearly sensed what was happening with that inimitable instinct of his and lifted his leg, allowing the cross to just bounce through the United defence and into the corner of the net.
They almost had a winner through an even more unintentional manner, a panicked United clearance smacking off David De Gea’s post and across goal.
Fati was by then enjoying the run of the pitch as everyone else was just enjoying the game.
It makes next week all the more tantalising. These may not be historic peaks for either club, for the very reasons they are in this competition in the first place, but it allowed for a high point in entertainment.
Both have bigger ambitions than this competition. Neither is willing to let it go that easy, as this made clear.