The two clubs have won a combined total of eight Champions League titles, but this time around, they will be battling for a place in the last-16 of Europe’s second tier club competition.
Two of the heavyweights of European football are set to square off in uncharted territory when Barcelona host Manchester United in the first leg of their Europa League playoff tie at Camp Nou on Thursday night. The two clubs have won a combined total of eight Champions League titles, but this time around, they will be battling for a place in the last-16 of Europe’s second tier club competition. Meanwhile, both sides are heading into the match on the back of some stunning form. The Catalan outfit are aiming to extend their winning streak to 12 games across all competitions, while Manchester United have won five of their last six outings.
𝐂 𝐋 𝐀 𝐒 𝐇
⚔️ 𝐎 𝐅 ⚔️
𝐆 𝐈 𝐀 𝐍 𝐓 𝐒 pic.twitter.com/ym2r6Z9EUK
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) February 16, 2023
Barcelona dropped down from the Champions League after finishing third in Group C, behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, while the Red Devils secured second spot in Group E of the Europa League to progress to the knockout rounds.
Barca’s group stage ended with just two wins from six outings and their last defeat came against Bayern (3-0), late in October. Since then, Blaugrana have gone on a 16-game unbeaten run, winning 15 of those. Their last outing against Villarreal ended in a 1-0 win, thanks to Pedri’s 18th-minute effort. Manchester United, on the other hand, defeated Leeds on Sunday, courtesy of late goals from Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho. Thursday’s clash in Catalonia is likely to be a mouth-watering affair as both sides have a plethora of world class talent at their disposal. Here are some of the key battles to look out for.
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Rashford has been in stunning form of late, scoring 13 goals and providing four assets in his last 15 games across all competition. The 25-year-old is a key figure to Eric Ten Hag’s counter-attacking style of play. The Englishman’s pace and ability to take on defenders are attributes that have grown to greater strengths in recent weeks. But Rashford will be up against his toughest challenger this season, when he will go head-to-head against Barca defender Ronald Araujo at Camp Nou. The Uruguayan, who is a natural centre-back, is likely to be shifted to the right-back-position, in order to neutralise the Englishman, who usually operates down the left channel of United’s attack. The 23-year-old did a fine job to silence Vinicius Junior in the Spanish Super Cup final on January 15 and he will be expected to do the same against Rashford on Thursday.
20-year-old Pedri is undoubtedly the most talented midfielder in world football right now. The Spaniard has scored four goals in his last seven outings for the Catalan club. Last time out, it was his lone goal in the first half which helped Barca take all three points at El Madrigal. Under Xavi, the Spanish international seems to have taken his game to new heights. A fluent operator on the ball, can take on defenders with ease and also has an eye for goal. The teenager will be up against experienced Casemiro on Thursday. The 30-year-old defensive midfielder had won five Champions League trophies with Real Madrid before switching to Old Trafford last year. The Brazilian’s intelligence and determined play often helps the Red Devils make quick transitions from defence to attack. Casemiro is likely to give Pedri a hard time out and it would be interesting to see how the youngster wil cope with the physical game of the Brazilian.
Arguably the best striker and the best defender of the current generation will be up against each other as Barca striker Robert Lewandowski will battle with centre-back Raphael Varane on Thursday. Lewandowski has played a key role in Barcelona’s brilliant domestic season thus far, scoring 14 La Liga goals in 18 outings. The 34-year-old has a very impressive record against English clubs, having been involved in nine goals in his last three matches against English outfits. Apart from his goal-scoring prowess the Polish striker is very good with his link-up play with fellow attackers. Former Real Madrid defender Varane will be tasked with marking the veteran striker. The Frenchman, who recently announced his retirement from international football, has vast knowledge about Barca’s style of play, having been with Real Madrid for about 10 seasons. The 29-year-old is likely to marshall United’s back-four and his primary duty would be to keep a close eye on Lewandowski.
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