Two fallen giants of European football, going through revivals of their own face off against each other on Thursday night, as FC Barcelona welcome Manchester United to Nou Camp in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32.
Although the Europa League knockout round playoffs are a far cry from the glamourous Champions League nights these two clubs have played in their histories, there is still a European trophy to play for. It promises to be two wonderful and absorbing nights under the lights at two legendary arenas.
Barcelona were last in action in La Liga, as they scraped past Villareal to win 1-0 away from home. The Catalans showed their grit and determination to hang on to the lead after young midfielder Pedri had put them ahead in the 18th minute. Villareal came close to equalizing a few times, with substitute Samuel Chukuwueze’s goal late on disallowed for offside. Barca had many chances to increase their lead as well, but failed to capitalize on the opportunities.
That win was their sixth in a row in the league and eighth consecutive wins in all competitions, as they extended their unbeaten run streak to 16 games. It also gave them a mighty lead at the top of the table, widening the gap between them and second-placed rivals Real Madrid to 11 points. There were many positives to take away from that win although the performance did not fully satisfy manager Xavi Hernandez. The former Barca legend rued his team’s inability to kill of the game when they had the chance, and is hoping for a more dominant performance on Thursday night against a rejuvenated Manchester United.
Manchester United’s rise under Erik ten Hag has been there for all to see this season, and it was yet again apparent in the win over Leeds United at Elland Road. It was by no means the fluid and silky display seen from United over the past few weeks, but they dug deep and found a winner in a hostile environment. As the game stood goalless with about 10 minutes to go, it seemed the spoils would be once again shared between the two bitter rivals, as they had been in the midweek.
However, a sublime move from almost nothing saw Marcus Rashford pop up with a well timed header to push it past the Leeds goalkeeper and give United the lead in the dying minutes. As Leeds then piled the pressure on in search of an equalizer, up stepped substitute and Man United’s newest teenage sensation Alejandro Garnacho to score from a brilliant run to give the Red Devils all three points, strengthening their grip on third place and taking them a bit closer to league leaders Arsenal who dropped points again. They now turn their attention to a testing tie on Thursday, which will be even tougher given their injuries and suspensions.
WHEN & WHERE?
Date: Thursday, 16th February 2023.
Time: 6.45 pm BST.
Venue: Nou Camp, Barcelona.
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Barcelona manager Xavi has a very strong squad to choose from, with only two confirmed absentees for the first leg of the tie. Winger Ousmane Dembele suffered a thigh injury at the end of January which has keep him out of action since and the Frenchman will be on the sidelines for a few more weeks. Veteran midfielder and captain Sergio Busquets will also be absent for the home tie after suffering an ankle injury in their 3-0 win over Sevilla, but is expected to return soon.
Manchester United have a long list of injuries and suspensions, with many key players set to miss out on Thursday. Long-term absentees include midfielders Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek, with the Danish midfielder set to return in early May but the Dutchman has been ruled out for the season. Among others on the treatment table are forwards Antony and Anthony Martial and midfielder Scott McTominay, who have been missing from action for a few weeks now. Erik ten Hag has not provided any time frame for their return.
However, the most sorely missed among the absentees will be Argentinian defender Lisandro Martinez who is suspended for the first leg after accumulating too many yellow cards in the group stages. The defender has become an instrumental player for the Red Devils, and it remains to see how they will cope in his absence. Along with Martinez, Bayern Munich loanee Marcel Sabitzer will also be suspended for the first leg, with his suspension from the Champions League carried into the Europa League as well.
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A clash of two heavyweights in Europe always brings entertainment and excitement and Thursday night’s first leg will undoubtedly be an intriguing game. They are two iconic clubs who have met various times in the premier European competition that is the Champions League and have provided thrilling results whenever they have faced off. Now they meet again, albeit in the Europa League, with the winner of the two-legged tie taking up their place in the Europa League round of 16.
Both clubs are on an upward trajectory this season, with Manchester United having quite the turnover under Erik ten Hag, and Barcelona themselves on course to win a league title for the first time since 2019, having improved leaps and bounds under the former player and now manager Xavi.
Man United face a real test given their injury problems combined with Barcelona’s superb home record. Nou Camp has not been a happy hunting ground for United historically, with the English team having a very poor record there. The Red Devils have scored only three goals in 5 occasions there and have not won a single game there.
However, while they have a poor record at Nou Camp, it also was the venue where United completed their iconic treble in 1999, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring a last-minute goal to give United the 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. As a result, Manchester United has fond memories of the legendary stadium, and Erik ten Hag will be keen to contribute on Thursday night.
Xavi has troubled and hurt United as a player on a few occasions, winning two out of his four Champions League titles against the Red Devils. He was an instrumental player in 2009 and 2011 when Barcelona demolished Manchester United in the UCL finals and he has always relished coming up against them. He will be eager to haunt the Mancunians again, this time as a coach.
The two clubs meet in the midst of their best forms of the past years. Barca are 16 games unbeaten in all competitions, very stable in defense and almost unbeatable at home. The vibes around Manchester United are very positive at the moment, as the Red Devils have won 12 out of 15 games since the world cup, with a very inspired Marcus Rashford leading their charge.
It is truly a fight to savour, and it has all the signs and makings of a classic encounter between the two. Although Barca will feel they have the advantage going into their home tie and with United’s absentees, it is very hard to predict the outcome with both sides evenly placed in the game, making it a not-to-miss game.
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The Uruguayan did not have a brilliant start to life at Camp Nou when he was promoted from the FC Barcelona B side back in 2018, as he was sent off just 14 minutes into his debut for a rash tackle. Araujo, however, bounced back with many strong performances and has been the mainstay of the squad since the 2020-21 season. The 23-year-old has been on a roll this season, forming a crucial partnership alongside Andreas Christensen at the heart of the defense, which has provided the Barcelona side with a strong base.
Although a long-term injury kept him out of action for several weeks, he has played has almost every game since the World Cup. Regarded as one of the most promising defenders in the world, he has certainly made a case to be considered as one of the best if he can keep up this form. He faces an in-form United attack on Thursday which will be a real test for the Uruguayan.
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One of the best attackers in Europe at the moment, Marcus Rashford has been playing like a man possessed. He has scored 13 goals and provided four assists since the World Cup in Qatar and defenders are not particularly enjoying going up against the forward right now. The 25-year-old winger was on the scoresheet yet again on Sunday as he scored with a lovely header to open the scoring at Elland Road. It was his 8th goal in his last 9 PL games and his 12th overall in the league.
Rashford has improved manifolds after a very poor 21/22 season and Erik ten Hag has turned him into one of the most feared wingers in the league. His pace on the ball, quick feet and trickery combined with his ability to get into spaces between defenders and his terrific finishing has left defenders wondering how to stop him.
In Barcelona, the forward will go up against one of the best defenses in Europe, with the Barcelona back four notoriously stingy in the league, conceding only seven goals in 21 games. However, they have not had the best of times in Europe and Rashford will hope to exploit their weaknesses on Thursday night.
Barcelona predicted XI vs Manchester United: Marc-Andre ter Stegen; Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen, Alejandro Balde; Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Franck Kessie; Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski, Gavi.
Manchester United predicted XI vs Barcelona: David de Gea; Diogo Dalot, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford; Wout Weghorst.