Jordi Cruyff

Barcelona sporting director Jordi Cruyff has already backed Manchester United to make progress under Erik ten Hag following yesterday’s Europa League draw which paired the two clubs in the knockout play-off round.

United, who saw their nine-game unbeaten run come to an end against Aston Villa on Sunday afternoon, losing 3-1 at Villa Park, will face the Spanish heavyweights in a two-legged fixture in February. The winner will advance to the Europa League last-16 and keep their hopes of winning a European trophy this season alive.

The Reds, who last faced Barcelona in 2019, failed to automatically qualify for the last-16 of the competition, finishing as runners-up in their respective Europa League group. Despite beating Real Sociedad 1-0 in their final group game, they missed out on top spot by just one goal.

Barcelona, meanwhile, dropped into the Europa League after finishing a disappointing third in their Champions League group. They failed to progress to the last-16 of Europe’s premier club competition, being beaten to the top two spots by Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, respectively.

The tie, which was the first out of the hat, promises to get the juices of both sets of supporters flowing, although failure to progress from it will result in the losing club’s European aspirations for this season coming to an end. Both sides will fancy their chances of progressing, but will be acutely aware of the challenges the opposition will pose.

And Barcelona chief Cruyff, who spent four years at Old Trafford as a player, is likely to be already warning his Catalan colleagues of the threat United will pose under Ten Hag. That is because the Dutchman, speaking earlier this season, waxed lyrical about the United manager, backing him to take the club back to its expected lofty perch.

“The new start gives a lot of expectancies so it is always difficult to manage that and in the Premier League it is always a tough league,” Cruyff told Sky Sports, speaking in September. “It is very hard to predict at the start of the season who will be in the top-four.

“It is a tough challenge but with enough time and enough patience and with the necessary movements in the transfer periods, I am sure they will get back to where they need to get.”

United have made sufficient progress in a short space of time under Ten Hag, becoming a more collective and unified team. They have produced some excellent performances in recent weeks and they have been as a result of the Dutchman moulding together a blueprint that everyone has followed to the letter.

“United have always had over the years a good squad,” Cruyff continued. “If you look at the squad player by player you can see that it is a good squad so there has never been a lack of talent.

“Sometimes good players do not make a winning team. That is part of the formula where things are getting more complicated.

“Before you would just say: ‘He is a good player, he fits our style of play, our DNA, we will sign him’.

“Nowadays it is not just about that player; it is about fitting him in with a player beside him, in front of him, behind him. Can they play together? That is a complete different story, it is not like a computer game.

“In the end it is about finding the right balance and I think in ten Hag they got a new heir. It feels like it is a new start and I am talking only from the outside what I read and follow a bit.”

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