United Need Defensive Resilience To End Pain in Spain
April 15, 2019
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer told us last February, ‘mountains are there to be climbed.’ Manchester United went on to overcome their Everest in Paris last month, in what was one of the greatest Champions League comebacks of all time. Now, the Red Devils travel to Barcelona in need of another European miracle.
The Catalans left Manchester with a crucial away goal and now look to be in the driving seat for the second leg at the Nou Camp. It feels like ‘Deja Vu’ from the Paris St Germain tie for the Red Devils, but somehow, this feels like a bigger ask for Solskjaer’s side.
Barcelona have only lost one game at home all season and the odds are certainly stacked against United’s chances of qualifying on the night. Both team’s forms have rocked a little in recent weeks though, with neither side entering the fixture firing on all cylinders.
Red Devils Looking Red Faced
Since Solskjaer’s official appointment, United have only won two of their last four games, with their latest coming in the Premier League courtesy of two Paul Pogba penalties. Against West Ham, the Red Devils looked sluggish and bereft of any attacking creativity, with the home side being fortunate to end the game with all three points.
The momentum seems to have fallen flat at Old Trafford and only a handful of players seem geared up for the challenge of Champions League qualification. Solskjaer initially injected a feeling of life into the team’s attacking stars, but the smooth rhythm and fluid in United’s frontline is slowly fading away.
As the home crowd learnt against Barca in the first leg, chances against the Spanish champions are hard to come by, and they will need to be much more clinical at the Nou Camp. At the other end too, the Red Devils have not kept a clean sheet since February and Luis Suarez’s scrappy goal highlighted the current mishaps that United are dealing with at the back.
Simply put, there is evidently significant levels between Old Trafford’s starting XI and those at the top end of the European spectrum. Solskjaer may slowly be recognising this, as reports regarding a transfer revamp continue to surround the club for the forthcoming summer. The club has to be participating in the CL next season and these players owe their manager this achievement, at the very least.
Pain in Spain
Much of the build-up to the highly anticipated clash has inevitably been around whether can United pull off another historic comeback. However, they must do something that the club has never managed to accomplish before –beat the Spanish giants at the Nou Camp.
In fact, the Red Devils always seem to struggle away in Spanish territory, having only won three times in the country over the last fifty years. Also put this statistic into context with Barca’s home form this season, and United will have to defy the history books if they are to qualify this Tuesday night.
On the note of history books, United should also possess an incentive to gain a bit of redemption on a side that handed their club two CL final defeats. We did witness a glimpse of hunger and fight at Old Trafford, but it was the quality in the final third that let the team down in the end. The side will need both at the Nou Camp if they are to have any chance of progressing into the semi-finals.
At Old Trafford, Barcelona, as ever, set up exactly how everybody expected. They had 67% possession on the night, with their midfield three continuously recycling the ball, while the fullbacks pushing high up the field to support attacks.
However, David De Gea was rarely tested and it wasn’t exactly a vintage Barca performance. Lionel Messi’s space was squeezed well by Scott McTominay, as the Spanish side failed to carve open any proper distinct chances. The Red Devils forced the play to be pushed out wide, an area where they were able to limit attacks from being instigated.
Arriving in Spain though, United will know that they need to offer more going forward. At the very least, one goal is required to take the game to extra-time, but that would also mean that they cannot afford to concede.
Solskjaer will likely operate with a deep block and keep Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku up-top for the counter. There is a glimmer of hope for the reds, as their opposition do leave space in-behind to be exploited. If Rashford can find a ball to run onto, the Englishman’s pace can be a key tool to hurt Barca on the night. He will require support though, and United do hold the more powerful runners from deep.
It isn’t an impossible task to grab a goal or two at the Nou Camp, but the Manchester club must be tighter at the back. Barcelona have the potential to run riot against any team in Europe and the Red Devil’s defensive line have to remain compact to deny the likes of Luis Suarez and Messi space to move into. They did so to some extent at Old Trafford, but we can expect a much more aggressive onslaught from Barca on their home turf.
Another European Miracle?
The million dollar question on everybody’s lips – can United do it again?
Their victory in Paris was one of the club’s greatest results of the 21st century, but have they used up their miracle for the season? This current run in the tournament is reminiscent of Chelsea in 2012, where they were pretty much the underdog for every single one of their ties.
Just like Di Matteo’s Blues though, Solskjaer has been the master of defying the odds this season. It would be one of the greatest tales in the club’s history if they were to progress on Tuesday, but they will need to touch down in Spain with a strong defensive resilience to their name.
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As an experienced sports writer, Josh has been published across various different platforms, writing about his beloved club Manchester United and other footballing topics. He also covers a range of other sports, specialising in UFC and Formula One.