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Manchester United vs Barcelona: Champions League quarter-final preview

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United clashes with Javier Mascherano of Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League Final match between Barcelona and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images)

Manchester United will host 2015 European champions Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

The five-time winners of the competition will play their second English team of the season when they face Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men at Old Trafford on April 9th, before United travel to the Camp Nou just a week later.

This will be their first meeting since Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s men 3-1 in the 2011 final at Wembley.

Man United’s home form has been the only real negative of their European campaign thus far, having won just one of their four home games this season, scoring only one goal.

However, they will travel to Spain with a far better European away record, having registered wins at Young Boys, Juventus, and Paris Saint-Germain.

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How they got there

United opened their Champions League campaign with a 3-0 away win at Swiss side Young Boys, but followed this up with a scoreless home draw to Valencia and a 1-0 home loss to Juventus.

United won the reverse fixture against the Italian giants in Turin, and followed this up with a 1-0 home win against Young Boys. Solskjaer’s side finished the group in 2nd place with 10 points, after losing their final game in Valencia.

United were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16, where they suffered a disappointing home loss to the French side; United registered only one shot on target and Paul Pogba received a sending off in the 89th minute.

Solskjaer’s men travelled to Paris on March 6th without a suspended Pogba and needing to overturn a two-goal deficit in order to reach the quarter-finals. With United winning 2-1 on the night but losing 3-2 on aggregate, they were awarded a penalty in the 91st minute after a VAR review for a Kimpembe handball. Marcus Rashford scored from the spot to send United through to the quarter-finals on the away goals rule.

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Meanwhile, Barcelona are unbeaten in the Champions League this season, having topped Group B with 14 points. The Spanish side scored 14 goals during the group stage, including four each in wins against PSV and Tottenham.

After failing to score against hosts Lyon in the first leg of their round of 16 tie, Ernesto Valverde’s men beat the French team 5-1 at home, with Lionel Messi scoring two goals and providing assists for Ousmane Dembele and Gerard Pique.

Talking Points

Barcelona, as ever, boast the fire-power of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele in their ranks, a trio that is sure to cause the Red Devils problems over a minimum of 180 minutes of football. The Catalans have found their best form in recent weeks, recording two away wins at Real Madrid and scoring 17 goals in their last seven games.

However Solskjaer will be boosted by the emergence of a rigid centre-back pairing of Chris Smalling and the improved Victor Lindelof, who’s been a revelation under the Norwegian. This centre-back pairing, protected by the experienced Ashley Young, the ever-present Luke Shaw, and a robust midfield three of Pogba, Herrera and Matic, could be enough to hold out Barcelona. 

Going forward, United have been sublime since the departure of Jose Mourinho. Marcus Rashford has discovered his best form, with Romelu Lukaku finding his scoring touch as well. Combined with the pace and dynamism of Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, most would back Manchester United to score goals against a an unsettled Barcelona defence that’s regularly alternated every game. 

This will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first trip to the Camp Nou since his winner in the 1999 Champions League final in United’s treble-winning season.

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Players to watch

Man Utd

Marcus Rashord and Anthony Martial will fancy themselves on the counter-attack, against a team who typically send their full-backs high up the pitch. Rashford was afforded a lot of space for Man Utd’s second goal against PSG, and Lukaku showed his pace in the first to give United the lead, suggesting that these avenues might be the best chance of success for United away in Spain.

Pogba and Matic will be key for Solskjaer’s tactics as well, as the pair may suffer without possession, but will need to physically impose themselves to break the Barcelona rhythm and feed United’s front three, as they did so brilliantly against Spurs in January.

Barcelona

Barcelona are unplayable when they get into their natural rhythm, and Rakitic and Arthur will be at the heart of this. Their movement into space behind United’s three will cause all sorts of problems if they’re able to turn and dictate play. However, the nucleus of the team is Sergio Busquets, who masterminds attacks from deep and controls the tempo of the game almost effortlessly. If he plays well, the team plays well.

Of course the influence of Messi cannot be understated, and his desire to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball when things aren’t flowing naturally for Barcelona will be a good sign of United’s tactical approach to the game. However in the final third, few players if any are as lethal as the five-time Ballon D’Or winner.

Prediction

If United are to go through it’s going to take a masterclass in every department against one of the most feared teams in Europe. Barca’s approach won’t be too dissimilar to PSG’s, but it will contain a lot more cutting edge in midfield. United will have to suffer to come through it, but there’s no reason why they can’t go down the other end and score. Parking the bus Mourinho-style won’t see a Red Devil’s win, they’ll need an optimism, especially at home, to take control of the tie. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will understand this though. Man Utd 2-1 Barcelona, but Barcelona to win 3-1 at the Camp Nou and go through 4-3 on aggregate.

Co-written with Sarah GlentonI

James Bayliss
James Bayliss, 23, is half Italian, half English and raised in London. He grew up in the capital doing several languages at school including French and Spanish before taking a degree in Italian and Business at the University of Kent. His studies at university started to shape his path in journalism as well, as his final year dissertation explored the relationship between football and Fascism. James first discovered his passion for journalism after a week of work experience at the Trinity Mirror and has gone back for work experience twice more since, having some articles published online. The work inspired him to create his own blog which he has been running for three years. He’s conducted interviews with some of the best journalists around in Alison Mitchell and Matt Dickinson, and has worked with Walking Football England captain Spencer Pratten on promoting the sport ahead of the upcoming inaugural Euro’s and World Cup. All this time dedicated to journalism has led him to doing a masters and NCTJ diploma at St Mary’s University Twickenham where he continues to learn and be mentored by some of the best in the industry.
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