On Wednesday evening, Manchester United host FC Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals. No one’s giving United much of a chance against the La Liga leaders, especially given the recent downturn in form at Old Trafford. But, after that magical comeback in Paris last month, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Reds believe they can spring another upset.
Ever since that Marcus Rashford penalty flew past the outstretched hand of Gianluigi Buffon, though, United have looked pretty rough. They’ve lost three of four in all competitions, crashing out of the FA Cup at Wolves and dropping to sixth in the Premier League.
Needless to say, Manchester United must be far better to stand any chance on Wednesday. This Barcelona side takes no prisoners.
Despite the boss’s upbeat assessment after the latest Wolves defeat, there’s a lot to be worried about right now. Neither David De Gea nor Paul Pogba — both rumored to be eyeing a transfer this summer — have played well of late. And United just aren’t good enough to overcome subpar performances from the club’s two best players.
Plus, United continue to struggle with injuries. Rashford and Ander Herrera missed last week’s Wolves match, joining Eric Bailly, Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, and Alexis Sánchez on the sidelines. Rashford, in particular, would be a devastating loss against Barcelona. United need his blazing speed up top to keep Barca honest on the counter.
Okay, now for a bit of good news. While Ernesto Valverde’s Catalan side played Atletico Madrid on Saturday, United got the weekend off. At Camp Nou, Barcelona labored against ten-man Atletico for most of the match, but struck late to take all three points and likely wrap up another La Liga title. Luis Suarez opened the scoring in the 85th minute and Lionel Messi added a second just moments later.
Late-match magic has become a hallmark of this Barcelona team. They stunned Villarreal on April 2 by coming back from 4-2 down in the 90th minute to rescue a draw. Again, Messi and Suarez were the goalscoring heroes.
Solskjaer and his coaching staff jetted to Spain to scope out the Barca-Atletico match firsthand. And they probably feel a bit encouraged by what they saw. A full-strength Barcelona eleven struggled to break down Diego Simeone’s dogged side. Despite an impressive record (Barca haven’t lost in the league since November), it’s more a story of grinding out results than overwhelming opponents with dazzling skill.
The experts might be writing off Manchester United’s chances, but Valverde knows this tie will be a battle. “They are a powerful team,” the Barcelona manager said. “Physically, they are really strong and they know how to put pressure on their opponents. They have players who are physically very powerful and they can be dangerous strategically, as well.”
“This match is a classic in European football. Barcelona have never won at Old Trafford, I believe. We are going to try and change that.”
As if Messi and Suarez needed any help, Ousmane Dembele is back in training (hamstring) and traveled with the squad to Manchester. The 21-year-old hasn’t quite lived up to the sky-high expectations after his £135.5 million (including add-ons) move from Borussia Dortmund, but he’s still a dangerous talent that can wreak havoc if neglected by defenders.
In a recent interview, former United manager Louis Van Gaal said that Solskjaer’s tactics amount to little more than parking the bus. That’s a pretty unfair assessment, but there’s no denying that most of United’s best moments under the new boss have come on the counter. Thankfully, that strategy perfectly suits his squad — and remains a particular weakness of Barcelona’s.
Barca generally press after losing possession, trying to win the ball back quickly without getting pulled out of position. But, if United can play quick passes through the opposing lines, there’s tons of space to exploit at the back. Last week, Villarreal gave the Barcelona defense fits by beating the press and countering directly. If Rashford’s healthy, that’s United’s best play.
Other subplots: Gerard Pique returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his 2008 transfer to Barcelona ... The Catalans are reportedly keeping tabs on Rashford’s contract situation ahead of a summer bid ... Oh, and I’m sure Luis Suarez will get a very warm welcome from the OT faithful.
Barcelona might enter this match as the decided favorites, but anything can happen on a European night at The Theatre of Dreams. If Manchester United’s defense can keep the potent Barcelona attack quiet — depriving them of precious away goals — then game on.