Marcus Rashford’s inspirational second-half performance was not quite enough for Manchester United as Barcelona fought back to claim a 2-2 draw in their Europa League knockout round play-off first leg.
Rashford arrived at the Nou Camp with pre-match praise from both Erik ten Hag and Xavi ringing in his ears and the forward backed up the managers’ words by drawing Man Utd level, smashing a shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegen two minutes after Marcos Alonso had headed Barcelona into a 50th-minute lead.
Rashford helped to complete the turnaround seven minutes later when he skipped to the byline before drilling a tempting cross along the six-yard box that Jules Kounde could only chest into his own goal.
Man Utd looked set to claim another famous win at the Nou Camp – the scene of their 1999 Champions League success – but Raphinha dashed those hopes when his inswinging cross found its way inside David de Gea’s far post to set up a tantalising second leg at Old Trafford next week.
Stunning second half leaves tie finely poised
Barcelona and Man Utd have met twice in Champions League finals and the two teams served up a thrilling encounter that was worthy of gracing Europe’s greatest club competition.
But for the time being, both sides must scrap for a place in the Europa League knockouts and they will each feel they had the chances to take a win into the second leg.
Robert Lewandowski – playing against Man Utd for the first time – was the first to go close, pouncing on some hesitation in the visitors’ defence to claim the ball before forcing a solid save from De Gea at his near post.
Pedri then volleyed over after a scooped pass from Gavi, but Man Utd grew into the contest and should have taken the lead when Wout Weghorst latched onto Bruno Fernandes’ through ball, but he shot straight at Ter Stegen.
Jadon Sancho then scuffed the first of two good chances wide before Ter Stegen stretched out an arm to tip away Rashford’s curling effort to ensure the first-half ended goalless.
But there was no danger of the second period going the same way with both sides intent on claiming a valuable victory and, after Raphinha and Sancho went close, it was Alonso who opened the scoring, with the former Chelsea defender being handed far too much space by Fred to head in a corner at the far post.
Rashford, the scorer of 13 goals in 15 games since the World Cup, took that as his cue and almost instantly levelled with a rasping drive from Fred’s pass that Ter Stegen perhaps should have handled more convincingly at his near post.
Kounde then bundled Rashford’s cross into his own net and should have seen red five minutes later when he brought down the England international on the edge of the area with a professional foul.
However, referee Maurizio Mariani waved away the incident – as did VAR – before booking Ten Hag for the Man Utd boss’ protests.
There was more frustration for Ten Hag in the 76th minute when former Leeds winger Raphinha bent in a cross that evaded everyone on its way into the far corner.
There was still time for Rashford to slice a promising chance wide and Casemiro to hit his own post with a shanked clearance, with the pulsating encounter no doubt leaving fans wanting more ahead of the rematch in seven days’ time.
Ten Hag: We should have won
Ten Hag described the encounter as Champions League quality, but admitted his side missed the opportunity to take a lead into the second leg.
“I think we dictated the game, apart from maybe 15 minutes in the first half,” the Man Utd boss told BT Sport. “We had so many chances so I was a little bit disappointed that at half-time it was 0-0. The opportunities they had, we created by ourselves.
“But it was a great game – two attacking teams. It was Champions League – maybe even more than that. I really enjoyed the game.
“In the end it’s 2-2 and we have to finish it at Old Trafford.”
Ten Hag did not hold back in his assessment of referee Mariani’s display, saying the Italian official had to send off Kounde for his challenge on Rashford in the second half.
“The refereeing had a big influence in this game,” said Ten Hag. “It was a clear foul on Rashy.
“You can discuss if it’s in or out of the box. [If it’s out then] it’s a red card because he was one on one with the ‘keeper. It’s a big influence, not only on this game but in this round.
“It can’t be. The referee can’t make this mistake. We should have won this game.”
Xavi: Man Utd are coming back
Xavi revealed he congratulated Ten Hag after the game for the work he is doing at Man Utd, saying his counterpart is helping to bring the club back to their best.
“It was a really tough game with a lot of intensity, passion, rhythm,” said the Barcelona boss. “We have to be proud because we competed really well until the end.
“We could have won with the last two chances, but we played today against a top team in Europe. I think Manchester [United] is coming back and today they showed their best version and now we have to compete well in Old Trafford.
“I think both teams are more or less in the same moment, in the same position. I said to Ten Hag ‘congratulations’ because he’s doing very well.
“They are Manchester United so this could be a final, semi-final, quarter-final of Champions League. But now we are in Europa League and it was a very good performance from both teams.”
Manchester United now turn their attentions back to the Premier League, with Leicester visiting Old Trafford on Sunday, live on Sky Sports; kick-off 2pm.
Sunday 19th February 1:00pm
Kick off 2:00pm
Erik ten Hag’s side then host Barcelona in the second leg of their Europa League play-off on Thursday; kick-off 8pm.
Barcelona return to La Liga action on Sunday, with Cadiz visiting the Nou Camp; kick-off 8pm.