Manchester United vs Barcelona (Thursday, 1.30 AM)
Days after locking horns in the first leg of the Europa League Round of 32 at Camp Nou, fallen giants Barcelona and Manchester United will renew hostilities once again. Their battleground this time: The legendary Old Trafford.
Last week, United were like a team possessed when they dragged out a 2-2 draw against the Catalan club even after going 0-1 down to former Chelsea defender Marcos Alonso’s pinpoint header. If it was the Manchester United of the past few seasons, they would roll over and concede a few times more without even having the composure or penetrating power to get back in the match. But this United under Erik Ten Hag is a different beast altogether.
Channeling the never-give-up spirit of the Red Devils of yore, United ripped through Barcelona’s defense and went 2-1 up in a jiffy, courtesy of a sizzling Marcus Rashford and an own goal from Barca defender Jules Kounde. They would ultimately concede from a Raphinha wonder goal but did not give an inch to their decorated opponents throughout the rest of the match.
Barcelona would have a flurry of attacks right at the death with the Spanish side coming very close to wrapping up the match but somehow, United survived that onslaught.
United have a near perfect home record in the Europa League with the only blip being their loss against Real Sociedad back in September. Barcelona, meanwhile, have lost 2 away games and won 1 in Europe this season.
To make matters worse, the Blaugrana have to travel to England without their midfield generals Gavi and Pedri, with the former out due to suspension and the latter dealing with an injury which he suffered in the first leg. These are just the latest addition of players in the sidelines for Barca with Sergio Busquets and Ousmane Dembele both likely to be unavailable again after missing out on the previous encounter.
United on the other hand can count on the services of World Cup winning defender Lisandro Martinez and on-loan midfielder Marcel Sabitzer, both of whom had to sit out the Nou Camp match due to suspensions. Playmaker Christian Eriksen will be the only huge miss for the Red Devils with the midfielder out till early April but the team have a proper replacement in the form of Sabitzer.
The United outfit is brimming with confidence at the moment which has been translating into the performances of the main man Marcus Rashford. Playing with a spring in his step after a very long time, Rashford is a man reborn under Ten Hag. The composure and the precision he showed while scoring United’s opening goal, that too from a near impossible angle, is a skill only a player with the utmost assuredness can even attempt, let alone score. Coming into Thursday’s clash with another match winning performance against Leicester City over the weekend, where he scored a brace, Barcelona defense need to be wary of a player functioning at the peak of his powers.
United had kept Robert Lewandowski uncharacteristically quiet in the Nou Camp but they will be delusional to be complacent. Along with Raphinha, the only player who actually looked dangerous coming against the united backline in the first leg, the Polish striker will look to translate his La Liga form to his European outings sooner rather than later.