Manchester United vs. Barcelona 2011: Michael Owen scores game-winner before record crowd at FedEx Field

The clubs were the same, as were many of the players. The setting was another massive stadium near a nation’s capital, stuffed with supporters decorated in Manchester United’s red and FC Barcelona’s claret and blue.

But when this affair between the world’s most popular sports enterprises ended, the trophy was not for winning the European Champions League. Rather, NBA star Kobe Bryant presented a sponsor’s trinket to defender Nemanja Vidic to commemorate United’s 2-1 victory over the Spanish titans in a friendly Saturday night before 81,807 at FedEx Field — a record crowd for a soccer match in the Washington area.

The outcome won’t soften the disappointment of losing to the Catalan club in the prestigious continental final in May at Wembley Stadium, but will provide a dose of gratification heading into the English Premier League season in two weeks.

“We’re happy winning the match and we move on now back home and hopefully we keep our form,” United Coach Alex Ferguson said. “To be honest, both teams made a lot of changes so it’s difficult to gauge the importance of the result.”

Michael Owen scored the go-ahead goal in the 76th minute, just six minutes after Thiago struck a wonderful equalizer for Barcelona. Nani had put United ahead midway through the first half.

Typical of Barcelona’s style, the Spanish side enjoyed 69 percent of possession but failed to manufacture many quality scoring chances until the final 20 minutes.

“Of course, we want to win, but we played against one of the best teams in the world,” Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola said. “They used [their] best qualities — the counterattack — but we played a very good second half.”

Falling in the preseason for both sides, the match lacked the intensity and focus of a high-stakes affair. Six Barcelona players who started in the Champions League final were in the lineup; Manchester United called on three. The teams combined to make 13 substitutions.

Barcelona was missing all its South American players who participated in Copa America in July, including the sport’s greatest player, Lionel Messi. United was without Mexican forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (concussion).

United, on the last leg of a five-match U.S. tour, enjoyed the better of play in the early stages. In the 10th minute, Nani crossed to Wayne Rooney making a near-post run, but the striker missed the short side with a one-timer.

Andres Iniesta, goal-scoring hero of Spain’s World Cup championship last year, was in the lineup, but without Xavi Hernandez, his creative partner in central midfield, Barcelona labored to break down United’s resistance.

United went ahead in the 22nd minute, seizing on Barcelona’s stalled possession and counterattacking with pace and efficiency. With long strides, Danny Welbeck surged through midfield and sent a through ball to Nani.

Unimpeded, Nani infiltrated the box, drew Victor Valdes off his line and slipped an eight-yard shot under the keeper. He celebrated with a backflip along the end line.

Barcelona sputtered throughout the half and failed to test David de Gea, United’s 20-year-old goalkeeper who was acquired this summer from Atletico Madrid.

Rooney’s night ended at halftime with Owen entering, and Anderson yielded to Ryan Giggs, who has represented United for 20 years.

Barcelona stirred to life. Iniesta and Thiago worked a tight combination, capped by Iniesta lifting the ball a bit too heavy into the box. De Gea sprang off his line a whisker before Thiago could tag it.

In the 70th, Thiago provided the equalizer with a stroke of brilliance. Giggs’s failed slide allowed Thiago to seize control and slide into space for a 23-yard drive with the outside of his right foot. As if caught in a sudden gust, the ball drifted away from de Gea and settled into the upper right corner.

United answered six minutes later when Tom Cleverely intercepted a lazy squared ball in midfield and supplied Owen for a breakaway. When Valdes approached, Owen calmly chipped it over him for a 2-1 advantage.

Thiago’s bid for another equalizer streaked over the bar and Owen missed from six yards after Gabriel Obertan turned the corner and crossed — the final threat in a compelling second half on a historic night for soccer in Washington.

“The team is playing good football this preseason,” Nani said. “I think the fitness is coming up, and it's good to win this way.”

Notes: The previous attendance record was 72,368 at FedEx for Real Madrid’s 2009 friendly against D.C. United.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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