United v Barca – Two Old, But Contrasting Foes
April 9, 2019
Cast your minds to Rome ten years back. As the clock struck the 70th minute mark, time stood still as Lionel Messi leapt in the air, before the ball elegantly nestled into the back of the net, ending Manchester United’s dreams of back-to-back Champions League trophies.
Just two years later and the Red Devils were put to the sword again by the Spanish giants, with Pep Guardiola’s side running riot in one of the most one-sided finals the European competition has ever witnessed. However, despite losing in both meetings, it was a period that earmarked success for United, as reaching the latter stages of the CL was a formality, not a long distance dream.
Both clubs are recognised on a global scale, but since these two finals that came in quick succession, United have embarked upon a downwards spiral, whilst Barcelona have maintained their position at the top of the European elite.
A Clash of Dream vs Expectation?
It does pain me a little to highlight United’s declining significance in the competition, as it is a tournament that has provided the club with some historic nights and one that helped forge that once feared reputation at Old Trafford. However, football is an unforgiving business and the plain reality is that the red side of Manchester are not viewed on the same level as the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and the like.
This is specifically in relation to the action taking place on the field and not the marketing value of the club. Remember the days when the board measured success from silverware and not the bulks of paper in their pockets? For the first time since 2014, United are in the quarter-final stage of the Champions League and given the turbulent season that we have experienced, this in itself is a miracle. The Old Trafford faithful have not been treated to a night like this for too long, and the atmosphere has been buzzing ever since the draw has been made.
Barcelona, on the other hand, do not see the upcoming tie as an exciting or special occasion. Instead, this is business as usual for the Catalan heavyweights, as not reaching this stage of the competition would be regarded as a catastrophe. Despite falling short at this point in the competition the last two years in a row, Barcelona look more determined than ever this season to right their wrongs.
With no Real Madrid left in the tournament, the CL trophy will not be draped in all white ribbons for the first time in four years, making this a great time for a new set of champions to emerge. Nobody more so than Los Cules have grown tired of seeing the Vikings assert their dominance in Europe and they will expect their side to capitalise and their arch-rival’s shock exit.
This expectation stems from Barcelona’s star-stellar displays this season, in which they have dominated La Liga. Coming up against United, Barca have been made the clear outright favourites to qualify and it will be considered a great upset if the Spanish giants weren’t to progress through to the semi-finals.
Their starting XI may differ from the last time these two met in a competitive fixture, but the philosophy and footballing traditions that led Barcelona to prevail over United in the CL finals remain strongly intact.
Ernesto Valverde continues to deploy his side with a three-man midfield, with the ever-reliable Sergio Busquets sitting as the deep playing playmaker. Arthur has been nothing short of a revelation at the Nou Camp this season, filling the Andreas Iniesta shaped hole in the middle of the park with his ball carrying skills. Ivan Rakitic will fill in at RCM, and the midfield trio will be patient with their build-up play and wait for the wide players to drop inside.
On the note of wide players, one man has inevitably dominated the pre-match analysis – Lionel Messi. The Argentinian magician has forty-three goals to his name this season and has simply looked unstoppable at times. Cutting in on his favoured left foot, defenders struggle to keep up with Messi in and around the box, so both Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof will need to try and squeeze the space in-front of him.
With the threat of Messi on the cards, we can expect limited bursts forward from Shaw, who will be preoccupied with not letting space open up for Barca’s attackers. The same, however, cannot be said for the left-back on the other side of the field in Jordi Alba. The Spaniard loves to push forward and offer himself as an outlet out-wide, leaving space in-behind for United to exploit.
This will most likely be the way for the game to play out from the off, with Marcus Rashford targeting this area in attempt of stretching Barcelona’s backline. Romelu Lukaku should also feature, as he will occupy Clement Lenglet and try to draw the Frenchman out, whilst Rashford races on forward.
Playing on the counter has been the main tactic adopted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during his time as United boss, and it has been one that has worked efficiently well for the most part. Despite a recent blip, the Red Devils do possess a threat going forward, and a goal is crucial on Wednesday night. Solskjaer and Mike Phelan will need to conjure up a specific gameplan to hurt Barca, but they do hold the dynamic tools to deliver.
Win or Bust For United?
In terms of the Champions League betting odds, the bookmakers are heavily favouring Barcelona to qualify at 2/7 with Ladbrokes. The Spanish giants are well ahead in La Liga rankings and their 2-0 victory over Atletico Madrid will provide them with a major momentum boost heading to Old Trafford.
The goals came courtesy from two ice-cool finishes from Luis Suarez and Messi, two players who have found the back of the net consistently this season. Going forward, Barca’s firepower is incredibly strong and given United’s misshapes at the back, a clean-sheet just doesn’t look like a reality.
United have to score at Old Trafford, as they will not want to be chasing the game away in Spain. A draw wouldn’t be the worst possible scenario for the home team in the first leg and Solskjaer will need to strike a balance between sitting deep but trying to hurt Barcelona on the break. It’s a huge European clash to look forward to and one that Old Trafford has longed for in recent times.
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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.