Barcelona manager Xavi said of his team’s pairing with Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League (UEL) knockout play-offs, “Both deserve to be in the Champions League.” After placing third in Group C, behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, Barça was relegated to the UEL for a second consecutive season. The Catalan team has since moved past that setback by compiling a 16-game competitive unbeaten streak (W15, D1) that has earned them the Supercopa de Espaa title and an 11-point lead in La Liga as of last weekend.
Spotify The first leg of this two-round matchup will likely take place at Camp Nou, where Barça has only lost twice to English clubs in UEFA competitive home games (W22, D11). Their defense, which has only allowed eight goals in 14 home games this season—seven of which came in Europe—could be the key to another successful outcome.
Real Sociedad beat United on goal differential, preventing them from taking first place in UEL Group E. Making matters worse, defensive anchor Lisandro Martnez is suspended for this first leg. In the previous past, that might have been a fatal flaw in United teams, but manager Erik ten Hag has worked his club into a competitive unit that is currently third in the Premier League and has lost just once in 17 competitive games (W14, D2) while also recording eight clean sheets.
The Red Devils have won five straight games in Europe, and they have a chance to win six straight games for the first time since 1965/66! That could motivate the visitors who have previously struggled against Spanish teams because they have lost their last five European campaigns to Spanish clubs in addition to having lost four straight UEFA Head-to-Head matches against Barça.
Watch out for: Robert Lewandowski, who is one brace short of becoming the third player to score 100 goals in UEFA club competitions. In fact, he has scored twice in six of his past nine UEFA match appearances, but Marcus Rashford of United could steal the show. The visiting forward has scored 17 goals (G13, A4) in 15 games since the World Cup, and he is in excellent form.
Fact: Barcelona has only won two of their previous 11 UEFA home games (D4, L5), and they have given up three or more goals six times.
Due to hamstring and ankle injuries, respectively, Barcelona will be missing important players Ousmane Dembele and Sergio Busquets for both legs of their Europa League playoff match.
Gavi, Ferran Torres, or Ansu Fati could play on the left wing in Dembele’s absence, joining top scorer Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha in the front three.
Gavi is another option to replace the injured Busquets in the middle of the field, but Franck Kessie received the nod to start last time out with Frenkie de Jong and Pedri, and the Ivorian may keep that spot on Thursday.
Xavi is unlikely to make many, if any, changes to his defense, which has so far this season kept 16 more clean sheets than any other team in Europe’s top five divisions. However, he might think about switching Alejandro Balde out for veteran left-back Jordi Alba.
While Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are both suspended, Man United will be without Donny van de Beek (knee), Christian Eriksen (ankle), Anthony Martial (hip), Scott McTominay (muscle), and Antony (leg) due to injuries.
Casemiro, a Brazilian, will team up with fellow countryman Fred at center-midfield now that he is ready for selection after sitting out the last two Premier League contests due to a ban.
Instead of Harry Maguire at center back, Ten Hag might think about keeping Jadon Sancho on the right wing, where he would join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and Wout Weghorst in attack.
Ter Stegen, Kounde, Araujo, Christensen, Alba; Pedri, De Jong, Kessie; Raphinha, Lewandowski, Gavi are likely starters for Barcelona.
De Gea, Dalot, Varane, Shaw, Malacia, Casemiro, Fred, Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford, and Weghorst might be Manchester United’s starting lineup.
We predict a 2-2 tie for Barcelona. Manchester United
Barcelona is right to be upbeat going into the match on Thursday, but Man United, who are continuing to improve under Ten Hag, will throw a test on both their excellent unbeaten streak and defensive prowess.
We anticipate the match to gradually change into the latter, with the rewards being shared in a fiercely contested but exciting first-leg match. It remains to be seen if a tight encounter or free-flowing contest will be on display at Camp Nou.