Manchester United travel to Barcelona for a Tuesday night Champions League showdown with this quarterfinal tie still hanging in the balance. Neither side played particularly well in the first leg, but Barça narrowly edged the Reds courtesy of an unlucky own goal. Still, United should take plenty of confidence from that 1-0 loss.
Other than one major defensive lapse that resulted in Barcelona’s only goal, the Manchester United defense kept Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez relatively quiet. Not many teams can say that.
Part of that success came via Chris Smalling’s physicality. One clash, in particular, left Messi bloodied and dazed. And Barça’s manager fuming.
Ernesto Valverde compared the challenge to a train collision. Former United manager José Mourinho, though, was having none of it. “That situation with Smalling and Messi is nothing,” he said. “It happens. He’s just a tall guy with tall arms. I don’t think he has that intention, but they thought about him. And they have to think about him.”
If Messi spends any time on Tuesday looking over his shoulder for Smalling, then mission accomplished.
With La Liga all but wrapped up, Valverde took the opportunity to rest his starters against last-place Huesca on Saturday. Suarez and Gerard Pique were suspended; Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić, Sergi Roberto, and Messi stayed home; and Nelson Semedo, Philippe Coutinho, Arthur, Clement Lenglet, and Jordi Alba were on the bench.
And it showed. Barca struggled to a 0-0 draw at Estadio El Alcoraz, causing Arturo Vidal to admit the obvious. “We were all thinking about Manchester,” he said. “Those that were here and those that stayed at home. It is going to be difficult, but we got a good result over there. The Champions League is everyone’s dream.”
Manchester United also looked distracted on Saturday, escaping with a 2-1 win over West Ham. On another day, the Hammers could easily have taken all three points. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least.
“I’m looking forward to a better performance,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “Everyone knows we've got a ways to go and we have to perform better. If that was Barca today, it would have been 5-0.”
Solskjaer held Victor Lindelöf, Scott McTominay, and Marcus Rashford out of the starting eleven against West Ham, although Rashford was drafted into second-half action with the United attack sputtering. Paul Pogba, playing in a deeper role, also showed signs of life for the first time in a while. He needs to be at his world-class best at Camp Nou.
Luke Shaw sat out through suspension for yellow card accumulation — and will do the same on Tuesday. It’s been a solid year for the 23 year-old left back, but he continues to pile up cautions at an unhealthy pace. He’s taken a big step forward in 2018/19 and the next step in his development must be better discipline.
Turning over a deficit at Camp Nou is a daunting task, but Manchester United are bolstered by a strong road record throughout this Champions League campaign. The Reds already won at both Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain — why not add Barcelona to the list?
Plus, United players clearly feel that the Catalans are there for the taking after a lackluster first leg. This was no one-sided result like the Champions League finals in 2009 and 2011.
“On the day, you can score from one chance and that’s what Barcelona did,” Romelu Lukaku explained. “There was a lack of concentration and they scored a goal. Over there, we have to do a better job and stay focused a bit more.”
“We know they have players who make late runs. For us, we have to go with the desire, be focused, and when the chance comes, we have to score.”
Diogo Dalot agreed. “I think we showed everyone that we could have got a better result and create chances to get goals. I think everything is open for the second leg.”
“We saw a team we can beat,” Paul Pogba said. “We believe we can beat them.”
“Obviously, you are playing against one of the best teams in the world,” he continued, “but we gave them some problems. We know we can hurt them.”