frenkie de jong

So, Frenkie de Jong will play at Old Trafford after all. Erik ten Hag’s top summer target will finally be arriving in Manchester in March, just not in the way the Reds boss envisaged.

Manchester United’s punishment for failing to top their Europa League group is a play-off trip to Champions League failures Barcelona – not that fans will mind rocking up at the Nou Camp. United will visit Spain first in February ahead of the return leg at Old Trafford the following month.

This will present the opportunity for De Jong to experience the Theatre of Dreams for the first time in his career, a place he could have called home. Frustrating negotiations over the summer, coupled with his desire to stay at Barcelona, led to United pivoting towards Madrid and picking up Casemiro from Real instead.

He will want to show that staying on the continent was the correct choice. Either way, he will learn three things from his upcoming short stay on this island.

The first thing the Netherlands international will ultimately find out is whether his European ventures were best served at Barcelona or not. One of the main sticking points in United’s hunt for signings over the summer was the lack of Champions League football, and it would have played a role in De Jong’s thinking.

While his team are cutting the gap to champions Real Madrid in La Liga, boss Xavi has endured a horrid European campaign. La Blaugrana were eliminated from the Champions League group stages with two games left to play as Bayern Munich and Inter Milan progressed.

If United dump Barca out of the Europa League – to which they have now been relegated twice in as many seasons – it will be a bitter pill for De Jong to swallow.

The Spanish club have already lost out on millions by their Champions League misfortunes and being knocked out of Europe’s second-tier competition will do no favours for their financial stability or De Jong’s wage dispute with the club.

Secondly, De Jong will learn what the Old Trafford faithful are truly like, up close. The history between the two clubs will create a vibrant atmosphere anyway but the fact that the return leg is in Manchester, and that United are winless in their last four meetings, will turn the volume up a notch. The stadium is sure to be rocking and this may plant a seed in De Jong’s mind ahead of next summer.

Finally, the midfielder will discover whether he will be able to hack it against the Premier League’s big-hitters. He has played against English clubs three times – losing the 2017 Europa League final against United while at Ajax before going down to Tottenham in Amsterdam following their Champions League semi-final first leg win in 2019.

Of course, how the Netherlands do at the World Cup will have an impact on the judgement of his capabilities, but there’s nothing like putting a theory to the test and that’s what will happen after Christmas.

It will also be a good barometer by which Ten Hag can vindicate putting De Jong as last summer’s number one target. United are sure to have other priorities next summer but the contest will allow him to judge whether to keep De Jong on his wish list.

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