In front of an exuberant Stretford End, Brazilian duo Fred and Antony, who were introduced as halftime substitutes, both blasted in low first-time strikes.
It was a triumph that seemed improbable at the interval as Barcelona lead thanks to Robert Lewandowski’s penalty in the 18th minute following Bruno Fernandes’ unnecessary foul on Alejandro Balde.
However, the addition of Antony in place of ailing attacker Wout Weghost altered the course of the match since it gave United’s attacks additional vigor, which the La Liga leaders were unable to contain.
Moving on to Wembley, Erik ten Hag’s team will take on Newcastle in the EFL Cup final in an effort to win their first trophy since 2017.
Barcelona was ousted from European competition for the first time since 1998-1999 without making it through the round of 16, which was not exactly what president Joan Laporta had in mind when he used all those economic tools last year.
Barcelona’s 18-match winning streak came to an end, and it was also their first loss since October.
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Ten Hag commented following the game: “A wonderful night it was. When you defeat Barcelona, who currently leads Real Madrid by eight points in La Liga and who Real Madrid has been playing this week, I believe it is fantastic.
“A wonderful performance, and we need to carry that with us this season to show that we can prevail in the games.”
And he said: “I believe we have fantastic characters, starting with the winner-types David, Rapha, Licha, Casemiro, and Bruno.
“The subs are bringing energy, quality, and a different dynamic to games, which shows how much everyone believes in this squad and fights for it. In this game and elsewhere, every substitute played outstandingly.”
Fred the red threat
Since moving for £47 million from Shakhtar Donetsk to United in 2018, Fred has faced a lot of critics.
Christian Eriksen probably wouldn’t have even started this match if he hadn’t been sidelined until the end of April due to injury.
Yet, as Ten Hag has acknowledged, in order to play frequently for Brazil, a player must be a good one, and this was one of those times when he did.
The Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong of Barcelona, who United fought so hard to get in the summer, missed Fred’s run into space on the outskirts of the box and his wonderful effort.
Following Fernandes’ excellent through ball, De Jong finally moved in to put pressure on his opponent, but it was too late to stop Fred from scoring the equalizer.
The game changed as a result of the goal. Fred then channeled his energy into stopping Barcelona counterattacks, making darting runs that alarmed the visitors, and even getting the straightforward passing right—something he frequently fails to do.
Before Antony’s third attempt, which led to their second goal and enabling United to join Arsenal in the round of 16, Fred joined Alejandro Garnacho in having a shot stopped.
The opening leg will be on March 9 at home, whoever they end up with.
Ten Hag’s pivotal halftime substitution
Although Weghorst has received praise from Ten Hag for his dedication, at this level—a Champions League game in all but name—he appeared to be what he really is: an emergency signing made at a low cost to fill a void left by Cristiano Ronaldo’s unexpected departure until someone more qualified can be added in the following summer.
Weghorst is having to take on a bigger role than Ten Hag had planned since Anthony Martial’s ongoing injury is weakening his team as a whole.
It came as no surprise when Antony took his place at halftime, nor did it surprise anyone when the hosts’ performance much improved.
There were still a few tense moments, such when Raphael Varane kicked Lewandowski’s shot away from danger in injury time after Jadon Sancho had failed to follow the France defense and David De Gea made a terrific stop to deny Jules Kounde after Sancho had failed to track the French defender.
Yet, Ten Hag and his coaching staff were the ones who were jubilant at the final siren.
Although he is aware that the club needs some hardware to truly demonstrate that they are on the right route, the Dutchman has clearly changed things at a place where things seemed to be going nowhere quick a year ago.
John Motson, R.I.P.
John Motson, a renowned BBC commentator, was honored by Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The club placed a picture of Motson, who passed away on Thursday, along with a candle in his memory on one of the tables in the press box area where the broadcast media sits.