A blockbuster encounter between two European juggernauts takes place at Camp Nou on Thursday night as Barcelona play host to Manchester United in the first leg of their Europa League playoff.
The two teams have previously etched their names into Champions League folklore, but their latest meeting over two legs will be their first in Europe’s secondary club competition.
Barcelona enter the Europa League knockout rounds for the second successive season after they could only finish third in their Champions League group earlier this season behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
Despite thrashing Viktoria Plzen both home and away, claiming just one point across four encounters against Bayern and Inter prevented the Catalan giants from securing a top-two spot.
Since losing 3-0 at home to Bayern in their penultimate group match on October 26 – their only defeat at Camp Nou in 14 games so far this season – Xavi’s side have excelled on the domestic front, putting together a 16-game unbeaten run across all competitions, including nine wins in their last 10 La Liga matches – the Catalan club’s latest success being a slender 1-0 win away at Villarreal last weekend.
Barca’s near-immaculate top-flight run has coincided with a blip in form from rivals and reigning champions Real Madrid, and Xavi’s side are now on course to lift their first La Liga title in four years as they boast a 11-point lead at the summit, albeit having played a game more.
While five-time Champions League winners Barcelona would prefer to be competing in Europe’s premier club competition, the prospect of becoming Europa League champions for the first time is sure to motivate Xavi and co – who have already won the Spanish Super Cup this year – as they attempt to balance their domestic duties with a two-legged clash against Man United.
Barca have lost five of their last 11 European games at Camp Nou, but they head into Thursday’s contest having won each of the last four meetings with Man United. Indeed, Champions League final triumphs in 2009 and 2011 against the Red Devils were followed by a 4-0 aggregate win in the quarter-finals of the same competition in 2019.
Almost 15 years on from their last Champions League triumph in 2007-08, Man United have had to get used to the rigours of Europa League football, competing in the competition on six occasions in the last 12 seasons.
The Red Devils started this year’s group stage on the wrong foot with a narrow 1-0 home defeat against Real Sociedad, but Erik ten Hag’s men responded well with five successive victories, although they ultimately had to settle for a second-placed finish behind Group E winners Sociedad on goal difference, forcing them to enter the playoff round as opposed to booking an immediate qualification spot in the last 16.
Man United are still competing on all fronts this season, with a EFL Cup final clash against Newcastle United to come later this month and a FA Cup fifth-round tie with West Ham United in March, while they are only five points off the Premier League summit, although current leaders Arsenal have two games in hand at the time of writing.
That gap to the top of the table could have been shortened had United not dropped points in three of their last five league fixtures. Indeed, after failing to beat Crystal Palace and Arsenal on the road last month, the Red Devils managed to rescue a point in a 2-2 home draw with Leeds United last Wednesday, before returning to winning ways with a hard-fought 2-0 victory at Elland Road on Sunday courtesy of late goals from Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho.
United’s focus now shifts to Thursday’s trip to Catalonia as they endeavour to win their first-ever game against Barcelona at Camp Nou at the fifth time of asking and take an advantage into the second leg at Old Trafford in a weeks’ time.
The Red Devils, who have lost just four of their 16 away matches in all tournaments this season, will be keen to improve their record against Spanish opposition as they have won only three of their last 14 such knockout fixtures in European competition. United came up short against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League second round last season, with a 1-0 first-leg home defeat followed by a 1-1 away draw in the reverse fixture.
Barcelona will be without key duo Ousmane Dembele and Sergio Busquets, who are set to miss both legs of their Europa League playoff tie with respective hamstring and ankle injuries.
In the absence of Dembele, one of Gavi, Ferran Torres or Ansu Fati could operate on the left flank, joining top scorer Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha in the front three.
Gavi is also an option to fill in for the injured Busquets in midfield, but Franck Kessie was given the nod to start alongside Frenkie de Jong and Pedri last time out, and the Ivorian may retain his starting role on Thursday.
Xavi is unlikely to make too many changes, if any, to his defence – which has kept more clean sheets (16) than any other team across Europe’s top-five leagues so far this term – but he may consider replacing Alejandro Balde with experienced left-back Jordi Alba.
As for Man United, Donny van de Beek (knee), Christian Eriksen (ankle), Anthony Martial (hip), Scott McTominay (muscle) and Antony (leg) will all miss out through injury, while Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are both suspended.
However, Casemiro is available for selection after missing the last two Premier League games due to suspension, and the Brazilian is set to partner compatriot Fred in centre-midfield.
Ten Hag may consider recalling centre-back Raphael Varane at the expense of Harry Maguire, while Jadon Sancho could continue on the right flank, joining Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Wout Weghorst in attack.
Barcelona possible starting lineup:
Ter Stegen; Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Alba; Pedri, De Jong, Kessie; Raphinha, Lewandowski, Gavi
Manchester United possible starting lineup:
De Gea; Dalot, Varane, Shaw, Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Weghorst