It is probably fair to say that the jury has been out on Antony since Manchester United paid €100m to take him from Ajax last summer. The most insistent criticism of the winger has been that he is too predictable. Defenders know that he wants to come in from the right and curl for the far corner with his favoured left foot. It will not be out for much longer if he gets the trick to work like this and to settle matches like these.
United had battled back from a 1-0 half-time deficit against Barcelona, the runaway La Liga leaders, Fred lashing home to cancel out Robert Lewandowski’s penalty, and a meeting that always crackles was in search of its latest goalscoring hero. United have had a few over the years, taking in Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Paul Scholes. Now Antony, on as a half-time substitute, added his name to the list.
The goal was sparked by a Luke Shaw backheel by the corner flag and Bruno Fernandes simply wanting the loose ball more than Raphinha. Fernandes was a symbol of United’s character; poor in the first half, he refused to hide, to stop making his runs and passes. There were others, namely Lisandro Martínez – a tower of strength in central defence – and Fred and Casemiro in midfield.
Fernandes looked up and pulled the ball back for Alejandro Garnacho, another substitute who caught the eye, all pace and direct running, and his shot was blocked. Then Fred tried his luck; another block. Enter Antony, who knew what he had to do mainly because it is what he always does. He got his body into its familiar shape and steered the left-footed curler into the far corner.
It was his sixth goal for United and they were on their way to a stirring victory which felt like more than the ideal tonic before Sunday’s Carabao Cup final against Newcastle. It was yet more evidence of what the manager, Erik ten Hag, is building: the identity and the never-say-die spirit.
It was the playoff for the last 16 of Europe’s second-tier competition and yet it had the trappings of a blockbuster, Old Trafford gleaming under the lights, two of the continent’s genuine superpowers present and renascent. If United believed they were on their way to restoring a bit of the old fear factor for visitors, Barcelona had arrived on a stunning run.
Since they lost 3-0 at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League on 26 October, Xavi’s team had won 16 of 18 in all competitions, drawing the other two – one of them the first-leg thriller against United.
It was the biggest game of Ten Hag’s United tenure and his players brought the intensity at the outset, feeding off the crowd, pressing high and making it uncomfortable for Barcelona. As such, the concession on 18 minutes was a shuddering setback.
The thing to say is that Fernandes gave the referee, Clément Turpin, a decision to make. The United captain chased a loose ball with Alejandro Balde following Raphinha’s cross from the right and his priority seemed to be to break quickly. He was caught out when Balde got there first and spun sharply, Fernandes grabbing the left-back’s arm, albeit not particularly firmly. Balde felt the contact, went down and Lewandowski was not bothered about the softness of the award. David de Gea got a hand to his kick but it was not enough.
For Fernandes, it capped a wretched start because he should have put United in front with the tie’s first move. Casemiro made an interception, gave the ball away and won it straight back before releasing his teammate with a pass up the inside right. Fernandes had all the time he needed – perhaps too much – and the finish was blasted low at Marc-André ter Stegen, who saved.
The Lewandowski goal completely changed the energy around the ground and for the remainder of the first half, it was United who looked edgy and imprecise; Barcelona who found their passing rhythms, with Frenkie de Jong the conductor. He did not need to play like this – also racing back at times to provide defensive cover – to show why Ten Hag had been desperate to sign him last summer. But he did anyway.
Fernandes failed to muster power in a volley and, with the home fans growing increasingly exasperated at Turpin’s decisions, it was Barcelona who almost extended their lead before the interval. Martínez made a saving challenge on Franck Kessié and, on the stroke of half-time, Casemiro bailed out De Gea after the goalkeeper had passed straight to Sergi Roberto. First Casemiro jumped into a slide tackle on the Barcelona winger and then, lying on the ground, he blocked Kessié’s follow-up.
Ten Hag had started with Wout Weghorst up front, Jadon Sancho as the No 10, Fernandes right and Marcus Rashford left. It did not work. But when he rejigged for the second half, there was an instant dividend. Off went the ineffective Weghorst and on came Antony, with Fernandes – crucially – switched to No 10 and Sancho moved out left.
It was Rashford who put a foot in on Kessié, freeing the ball for Sancho, who went square for Fernandes and he fizzed it along the edge of the box to Fred, whose first touch was excellent, setting up the low right-footed blast.
The electricity surged back through United with Antony almost getting away from Andreas Christensen. Fernandes did overstep when he blasted the ball at De Jong after the Barcelona playmaker had been fouled. Cue an angry bout of pushing and shoving. Fernandes was booked.
Barcelona thought that they had found a counter-punch when Jules Koundé ran off Sancho to meet De Jong’s cross. His header was tipped over by De Gea; a fine save, although Koundé had to score. The scene was set for Antony.