Manchester United’s thrilling victory over Barcelona was defined by the manic, intense energy of Bruno Fernandes.
After last week’s helter-skelter at the Camp Nou, with both sides trading goals with carefree abandon like those old black-and-white highlights of the 1954 World Cup, Old Trafford brimmed with excitement before kick-off.
But United received a schooling in the first 45 minutes. Barcelona went into the break with a deserved lead through Robert Lewandowski’s penalty, after Fernandes had senselessly sent Alejandro Balde tumbling to the ground.
This error, alongside a string of misplaced passes, caused the Portugal international to trundle around the pitch angrily muttering oaths under his breath. Peter Schmeichel, commentating on the game for BBC 5 Live, implored him to cut the crap.
United had drawn level through Fred’s opportunistic strike before the defining moment of the tie and, perhaps, United’s season. Frenkie de Jong, who spent the whole of last summer leaving United on read, was bundled to the floor by Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
Like all the best troublemakers, Fernandes was lurking near the scene of the crime and used all his expertise to escalate the situation. Spotting the loose ball, the midfielder booted it into De Jong’s midriff like a surly teenager slamming their bedroom door.
Cue bedlam. Cue a host of Barcelona players offering Fernandes out for a duel in the car park. Cue Fernandes summoning the level of righteousness only available to the guilty when standing his ground.
United’s winner, scored by the maligned Antony, was inevitable from this point onwards. The La Liga winners had allowed Fernandes to squat rent-free in their subconscious and lose their grip on the tie.
“The belief of the team is always there,” Fernandes told BT Sport after United had sealed a famous 2-1 victory. “The belief of the fans pushes us through difficult moments.
“It’s a great result for us, but now we have a big match on Sunday. This season we have been really good. It is something different, you can feel it.
“We knew the fans were behind us and it was only a matter of time before we scored our second goal.”
As United continue their remorseless march towards the most unexpected quadruple in history – as their season will surely be framed if they overcome Newcastle in Sunday’s League Cup final – the role of Fernandes in their revival should be celebrated.
He wasn’t the only player whose form was castrated by the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo last year, but United looked visibly worse without their midfield maestro pulling strings and inspiring his team-mates.
With Casemiro and Christian Eriksen complementing him with their classy presence, Fernandes has begun to flower once more. Goals and assists have returned to his game and every performance underlines his ability to perform under pressure.
And he ensured United beat Barcelona for the first time since 2008 with a majestic piece of shithousery, directed at the very player his employers spent the summer months of 2022 fluttering their eyelashes towards.
No wonder booting the ball at De Jong represented pure catharsis for both player and club.
By Michael Lee