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Barcelona and Manchester United tie 2-2 in scintillating first leg of Europa League playoff

<i>David Ramos/Getty Images</i><br/>Marcus Rashford has already equaled the tally for his best goal scoring season.
Getty Images
David Ramos/Getty Images
Marcus Rashford has already equaled the tally for his best goal scoring season.

By Alasdair Howorth, CNN

Barcelona and Manchester United played a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou in the first leg of their Europa League knockout playoff match, leaving the tie finely poised ahead of the second leg at Old Trafford.

In a fixture that fans are accustomed to seeing in the Champions League instead of the Europa League, the two teams nonetheless produced a brilliant night of European football.

Prior to kick off, managers Xavi and Erik ten Hag both said the match would be a test of each team’s progress under relatively new management and both will be pleased with the exciting attacking football their charges displayed. However, they will also rue the poor finishing that stopped either side from scoring more.

“In a game when you create five or seven chances you have to finish more,” Ten Hag said after the game.

“We should have won this game. We need to be more clinical, finish our chances. In such a game we created many chances and there is a disappointment that we did not finish them.”

After an open first half in which either side could have taken the lead, it was the home team who opened the scoring in the 50th minute when Marcos Alonso headed home from a corner. The former Chelsea man celebrated by honoring his father — a former Barça player — who passed away last week.

Just minutes later the match was level. Star forward Marcus Rashford finishing under keeper Marc-André ter Stegen from a tight angle.

Rashford was again involved as the Red Devils took the lead just before the hour mark. The England forward skipped past a defender before rifling in a cross that Bruno Fernandes cleverly back heeled in off Barça defender Jules Koundé.

United looked on its way to a famous first victory at the Camp Nou, but the Catalans struck back in the 76th minute. Raphinha’s whipped cross eluded both Robert Lewandowski and Raphaël Varane but in the confusion, it ghosted past David de Gea to set up a dramatic finish.

The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was in the spotlight again as both sides felt they were let down by the officiating. Ten Hag in particular was angry Koundé was not shown a red card for a challenge on Rashford when United was 2-1 up.

“It was a red card because he was one-on-one with the keeper,” said the frustrated Dutch coach.

“it’s a big influence not only on this game, but in this round,” he continued. “A referee cannot make this mistake.”

Both sides had a host of chances to find a winner, but neither could find the decisive touch, leaving both teams with a strong chance of going through when they meet again in a week’s time.

Barcelona will certainly be the more frustrated of the two after failing to win the home tie, and arguably the Catalans have more riding on the competition than its English opponent because of its continuing problems off the field.

The club’s dire financial state has been public knowledge for more than two years, while earlier this week it was revealed that the Barcelona Prosecutor’s Office is investigating the club over allegations it made $1.5 million in payments over three years to a company owned by a then-leading official with Spain’s referee committee, CTA.

Spanish radio station Cadena SER reported Wednesday that the club made a series of payments to a company owned by José María Enríquez Negreira between 2016 and 2018.

With mounting pressure off the field, Xavi will be desperate to show his team’s continued improvement on the pitch by progressing against United.

It is a far cry from when the two sides met in the Champions League Final almost 12 years ago, but the second leg at Old Trafford on February 23 will feel like a heavyweight European final.

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