Manchester United should fear no one in their quest to win four trophies, said manager Erik ten Hag after beating Barcelona 2-1 on Thursday to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League 4-3 on aggregate.
Robert Lewandowski’s early penalty had given Barca the perfect start at Old Trafford.
But the La Liga leaders – who dropped down to this competition from the Champions League – were again undone on the European stage as Fred equalised early in the second period before Antony clinched the win.
“It was a magnificent night. I think it is brilliant when you can beat Barcelona, eight points ahead of Real Madrid in La Liga,” said ten Hag, who has remarkably transformed United’s fortunes in his first season in charge.
“This is another step because when you beat Barcelona, your belief can be really strong because you are then able to beat anyone.”
The fact that two of the continent’s giants were clashing at this early stage of Europe’s second-tier competition was evidence that both have fallen on harder times in recent years.
But United are riding the crest of a wave as they remain in the hunt for trophies on four fronts.
The Red Devils could end a six-year wait for silverware when they face Newcastle in the League Cup final on Sunday. They are third in the Premier League, and also have an FA Cup fifth-round clash with West Ham to come.
“I think we have some great personalities in this team,” added ten Hag.
“Everyone has such a strong belief in this team, you can see it. With the subs they bring energy and quality, they bring a different dynamic in games.”
But the reality that United’s reward on Thursday is merely a place in the last 16 of the Europa League shows there remains a long way to go to rediscover their past glories on the continental stage.
However, momentum is building under ten Hag. For a long time since former manager Alex Ferguson’s departure in 2013, Old Trafford lost its aura as an intimidating destination for visiting sides.
But no one is looking forward to a trip to the Theatre of Dreams with United now unbeaten in 18 games in all competitions at home.
Barcelona joined the list of big names – Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City – beaten on United’s home soil in recent months.
Embarrassing defeats to Brighton and Brentford to begin ten Hag’s time in charge are now also a distant memory.
“You need a strategy to build it but also results to get that strong belief,” said ten Hag on how he has lifted United out of the mire of a miserable 2021-22 season when they finished sixth in the Premier League.
Buoyed not only by results on the pitch, but the potential departure of unpopular owners the Glazer family, the United fanbase is jubilant.
“The fans have been with us in the toughest moments,” said United’s captain for the night Bruno Fernandes.
“This season we have been really good because they are always behind us. You can feel between them and us there is something special, Old Trafford was bouncing, that is why we got the result.”
This was almost certainly United’s finest night in continental competition since eliminating Paris Saint-Germain from the Champions League last 16 in a dramatic night at the Parc des Princes four years ago.
The wait for such a European night under the lights at Old Trafford goes even further back to when Barcelona were beaten in the semi-finals of the 2008 Champions League.
“You can see what it means for the players. We haven’t seen that for such a long time,” said former United midfielder Paul Scholes, who scored the winner in the 1-0 victory that night.
“To see the passion that these guys have for Manchester United is just fantastic, especially the reaction to the crowd.”
Ten Hag is hoping this is just the start on United’s road back to competing at the highest level in Europe.
“We have the potential to beat the big teams,” he added.
“We have beaten City, Arsenal, Liverpool. If we show discipline and team spirit this team can do a lot.”
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