UEFA Europa League: Champions League royalty Barcelona and Manchester United clash in playoff first leg

The new generation of football fans tuning into the Europa League blockbuster playoff between traditional European powerhouses Manchester United and Barcelona may be excused if they find it difficult to believe that these two clubs fought for the Champions League title in the 2009 and 2011 finals. Since then, United have not reached another UCL final while Barcelona claimed its last crown in 2015 against Juventus. Since then, it has all been downhill for both clubs.

The fall from grace has been gradual with United failing to win a trophy since 2017 – which ironically was the Europa League itself – and though Barcelona won the Spanish league in 2018-19, their recent form in Europe leaves a lot to be desired.

Since winning the UCL in 2015, Barcelona’s Champions League form has gone from bad to worse. In the next three editions, they were eliminated in the quarterfinals. In the 2018/19 season, they lost 0-4 at Anfield in the second leg of the semifinals having won the 1st leg at Camp Nou 3-0.

The next season would be one of the darkest memories for any Barcelona fan when they were demolished 8-2 by Bayern Munich in one match. After that, they have lost to PSG in the Round of 16 and in the last two editions, failed to even cross the group stages.

United have been in freefall since the legendary manager Alex Ferguson left in 2012 after winning them their 20th and till now, their last Premier League title. They couldn’t even qualify for the Champions league this season. Since Ferguson left, United have reached the quarterfinals twice, been eliminated at the last-16 stage twice and failed to make it out of the group on two occasions.

However, a ray of hope for fans of both clubs is their recent domestic form. After running through a revolving door of coaches, United seem to have finally settled on Dutchman Erik ten Hag, who after a rather shaky start to the season with losses to Brentford and Brighton, has really turned United around. They even have an outside chance of making the Premier League title race a triple threat, sitting in third position, just five points off league leaders Arsenal.

Their star striker Marcus Rashford is finally fulfilling his potential having a hot run of form since the World Cup break. Against Barcelona, expect ten Hag to deploy Rashford up front in order to exploit the chinks in the Catalan outfit’s defensive armour. They will, however, miss their trusty defender Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer due to suspensions. Casemiro, who knows a thing or two about facing Barca, will be hoping to find holes in a Barcelona midfield bereft of Sergio Busquets. However, United will miss the services of the injured Christian Eriksen in midfield.

Red-hot form

Barcelona, meanwhile, are on a 11-match unbeaten streak, with their 1-1 draw against Espanyol in December the only match they had failed to win. They have opened up an 11-point gap at the top of the league table on Real Madrid after the recent 1-0 win against Villarreal, courtesy of a Pedri goal. With the Spanish wonderkid combining expertly with veteran striker Robert Lewandowski, United defenders and midfielders will have their hands full. Frenkie de Jong, who used to play for United manager ten Hag in Ajax, will also have a reunion with his former gaffer, having turned down the chance to join him at Manchester United in the summer. Barca have kept 16 clean sheets in 21 league matches this season with Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen, Ronald Araújo and Alejandro Balde in exceptional form.

A clash of titans awaits us this Thursday night as the two European heavyweights fight for the early advantage in the 1st leg at Camp Nou.

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