Manchester United

In years gone by, Manchester United versus Barcelona is a fixture that has historically been reserved for the latter stages of the Champions League.

It’s questionable whether the Europa League can ever throw up a ‘glamour tie’, but this is the competition’s best effort so far. Both clubs’ inclusion in Europe’s second-tier shows how each have sunk in recent years, especially Barcelona.

The Spaniards find themselves pinning up the branded black-and-orange theme on a Thursday night for the second season running. They’ll be welcoming United to the Nou Camp for a Europa League fixture for the first time ever in February.

Barcelona – top of La Liga by Sunday night – may be feeling confident though, even with three months to go until the tie. They have beaten United in their last four meetings, their last loss coming in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals.

The pair last locked horns in 2019, Barcelona coming out 4-0 victors in the Champions League quarter-finals. A strike from Philippe Coutinho and a brace from Lionel Messi tell their own story given where both are plying their trade today.

Just four of the Barca starting XI that day are still at the club, Gerard Pique’s retirement on Saturday preventing him becoming the fifth. In contrast, seven of the United line-up remain at Old Trafford.

Substitute Diogo Dalot takes the tally up to eight while Ousmane Dembele’s appearance off the bench takes Barcelona’s total to just five. It’s clear United have had an unhealthy lack of turnover at the club in the years since.

Consistency is fine if you’re winning – 2019 Champions League winners Liverpool still retain nine players who started in the final. But United have not won a trophy in five years and so still having as many as eight players in the current squad since their last trip to the Nou Camp is alarming.

But, actually, it could work in their favour this time. Barcelona have had a mass turnover since their last encounter, mostly due their finances, and are far from the side they once were. Hardly any of the current crop faced United in that last meeting, which could be to their detriment.

David de Gea, Victor Lindelof, Dalot, Fred, Scott McTominay, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will still remember that trying night in Spain nearly three years ago. Phil Jones will too, but he will be far from the action this time around.

Meanwhile, most of the others could well feature against Barcelona and so have the perfect motivation to enact revenge. They will still bear strong memories of playing in the Nou Camp, many of them for the first time, and so they will be well set up for a better crack this time around.

Each player has grown under Erik ten Hag too, and will be more structured than they were under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer four seasons ago. It’s always a special occasion when Barcelona come to town and players tend to elevate their levels against the prestigious club.

That extra bite and edge for those who experienced heartache in 2019 could allow United to have that extra edge in February and March.


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