Erik ten Hag said Manchester United “have a lot of character and determination” after his side contested a thrilling first-leg draw at Barcelona to leave their Europa League play-off tie finely poised.
Having previously met in two Champions League finals – both of which Barca won – the sides are trying to reach those heady heights again.
This encounter at the Nou Camp in Europe’s secondary competition was another step on that road back to the top.
Xavi’s men grabbed the opener when Marcos Alonso headed in at the back post from Raphinha’s corner, but United responded immediately through the in-form Marcus Rashford as he slipped in a finish at the near post.
They showed their resilience to turn the game around as Rashford’s cross was then turned into his own net by Barcelona defender Jules Kounde.
But United were unable to hold on as ex-Leeds winger Raphinha’s cross from wide on the right sailed all the way into the net.
Barca, though, almost snatched a late victory when Casemiro’s attempted clearance struck his own post, but little separated the sides heading into next Thursday’s second leg.
United manager Ten Hag told BT Sport: “I think it was a great game. Two attacking teams, I think it was a Champions League game, even more than that, so I really enjoyed the game. In the end (it finished) 2-2, and we have to finish it in Old Trafford.
“Of course I will credit Rashford definitely because he is in great form, but the whole team did well. I think it was a really good team performance.
“We have a lot of character and determination in this team. The belief we had to score the first goal and the meaning of the first goal is so important and that’s what we didn’t do.”
All to play for in pivotal week
The two fallen giants of European football are rebuilding their reputations this season.
They meet at this juncture after Barca went out of the Champions League group stage for the second consecutive season, while United’s second-placed finish in their Europa League group provided this extra play-off to navigate.
Red Devils boss Ten Hag said both sides “belong in the Champions League” – which will be the key priority come the end of the campaign – but progression from this knockout tie will see them reach the last 16 of the Europa League.
It was a stunning spectacle which ebbed and flowed, but the 90 minutes provided no indication as to which side will go through, setting up a fascinating return leg.
United suffered a 3-0 defeat on their last visit to Barcelona under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in 2019, but the measure of their recent revival showed as they went toe-to-toe this time and almost came away with a famous victory.
An early spell of pressure saw Robert Lewandowski’s powerful drive pushed out by David de Gea and Alonso curled a free-kick over.
But United grew into the game and their first clear-cut opportunity fell to Wout Weghorst as the Dutchman latched onto Bruno Fernandes’ through-ball but his low shot was kept out by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
It was the sort of chance visiting teams dream of getting at the Nou Camp and the German goalkeeper then made a superb, full-stretch save to stop Rashford’s curling effort.
The La Liga leaders went ahead on 50 minutes when Alonso headed in, but United levelled just two minutes later when Rashford smashed in his 22nd goal of a superb campaign, matching his best scoring tally for the club.
The England forward also played a major part in the 59th-minute second goal, skipping past his marker and delivering a dangerous cross that France defender Kounde bundled into his own net.
Raphinha’s fortunate strike, which seemed more of a cross intended for Lewandowski, made it honours even again 14 minutes from time.
United felt they should have had a penalty when 2-1 ahead. Rashford was brought down when driving towards goal, but the referee waved play on, much to the anger of boss Ten Hag who was booked for his protestations.
“I also think the refereeing had a big influence in this game,” said the Dutchman. “I think it’s a clear foul on Rashy.
“You can discuss if it’s in or outside the box, but then it’s a red card because he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
“It’s a big influence, not only on this game but in this round, and referees can’t make such mistakes.”
Substitute Ansu Fati was also denied by De Gea as Barcelona – who will be without midfielder Gavi through suspension for the return – came closest to a late winner.
United face a pivotal week in their quest for success this season, hosting Barcelona on Thursday before playing Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final the following Sunday as they aim to win their first trophy since the Europa League in 2017.