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FC Barcelona's European adventure is over for 2022/23. After elimination from the Champions League, all hearts were fully set on the consolation of the Europa League but instead they have fallen at the first hurdle.
But they bow out with their heads held very high indeed. After two exceptional games of extraordinarily high quality, both Manchester United and the runaway Liga leaders did everything and more to warrant a place in the last sixteen, but in the end the odd goal in seven tipped the balance the way of the Premiership side.
Frustratingly, after taking the lead from an early penalty, Barça looked comfortable enough with their lead. But United gradually picked their way back into game and ended up turning it around.
Naturally, the end game was all about Barça lunging forward in search of a way to at least take the fixture into extra time. It was mightily tense, and there were chances aplenty. But sharp defending from the home side, including a last-gasp clearance from Raphaël Varane to deny Robert Lewandowski with practically the last kick of the game, meant the mission was in vain.
United had only looked truly on top for the first few minutes, and it took some Ter Stegen magic to stop Bruno Fernandes from scoring.
But the potential game-changer came on the quarter hour. Fernandes somewhat unnecessarily pulled Alejandro Balde to the ground and that was a penalty.
It wasn’t so much a run-up from Lewandowski as it was a hop, skip and jump, and although David de Gea got a very good hand to the ball, thankfully it wasn’t enough and Barça were 3-2 up on aggregate.
So far so good, and the goal brought new verve into Barça’s play. And also to the mood of their fans, with the 2,000 plus blaugrana supporters making themselves heard above the noise from the home fans at Old Trafford.
Everything was going to plan, with a lot of movement in search of a second goal in the United area and surprisingly little in the way of real threats at the other end.
Just minutes into the second half, a well taken finish from Fred had the sides back level. Again a goal changed the momentum of the game. United, unrecognisable after going a goal down, sprung back to life. With neither side looking particularly on top of the other, the game was hanging on a knife-edge.
Equal on the night, equal on aggregate, this was tense, nervous viewing for both sets of fans…
A quarter of an hour to go. Two shots brilliantly blocked by the Barça defence in quick succession. But not the third. Anthony had Ter Stegen beaten and United led 2-1. Utter dismay.
Barça were down but not out. Sadly, however, despite an admirable battle to get back into the game, there will be no European trophy this season. But La Liga and the Copa del Rey are still very much on the cards and that is where the focus will be from now until the rest of the season.
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