Squint and you could almost see Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke carving open Barcelona’s defence with intricate one-twos and Rivaldo beating Peter Schmeichel with a bicycle kick.
Last week’s first leg between Barcelona and Manchester United in the Nou Camp was a modern day classic and a worthy heir to those thrilling 3-3 draws back in 1998.
It was a game of glorious chaos as the play swept from one end to the other. Both Barca and United enjoyed periods in the ascendancy, but neither had control at any stage.
In the end, 2-2 seemed like a fair result to take into Thursday night’s return leg at Old Trafford, though neither team was happy.
As soon as the draw was made, we suspected these games would be a bit too good for the play-off round of the Europa League and the first leg proved that theory correct.
Marcus Rashford was excellent as Manchester United drew 2-2 in the Nou Camp last week
Raphinha’s goal ensured the two teams go to Old Trafford all square after a pulsating match
Erik ten Hag and Xavi’s teams served up a real treat last week in a modern day classic
The best news is that we have another 90 minutes – and potentially more – of this first-class entertainment to come.
In the interim, United beat Leicester 3-0 to keep in with a sniff of winning the Premier League title, while Barcelona beat Cadiz 2-0 to preserve their eight-point lead at the top of LaLiga.
Away goals are a thing of the past in Europe, so United cannot rest on their laurels and defend. Both they and Barcelona will be going for it and here’s where the contest will be won and lost.
United may be at home but they should play on the counter
The ding-dong nature of the first leg was nicely summed up by the fact both sides had 18 shots on goal. But Barcelona enjoyed 61 per cent of possession.
It spoke to United’s strength playing on the counter-attack, something that clearly hasn’t diminished under Erik ten Hag.
While the Dutch coach would no doubt prefer a greater control of the ball, United certainly have the weaponry in attack to play in this way effectively.
Last week, United lined up with Marcus Rashford leading the line, Jadon Sancho on the left, Bruno Fernandes on the right and, somewhat surprisingly, Wout Weghorst in the No 10 role.
Youngster Alejandro Garnacho came on for Sancho with 10 minutes or so remaining, offering some fresh energy with the game in the balance.
Marcus Rashford fired home from a seemingly impossible angle during the first leg last week
The in-form England star equalised for his side in the 52nd minute of the game
Given that Antony and Anthony Martial are injury doubts for the second leg, it’s likely Ten Hag will replicate the attack from the first leg. Garnacho starting ahead of Sancho against Leicester was another clue.
With the pace of Rashford and Sancho, the ball-playing ability of Fernandes and the hold-up play of Weghorst, United can afford to give Barcelona a big chunk of possession and know they’ll still create chances.
Xavi deploys a strong press which is often effective in domestic games but less so in Europe. While they’ve conceded just seven times in 22 LaLiga outings this season, they’ve let in 14 in just seven continental games.
Bayern Munich and Inter Milan found ways of breaching their defence on multiple occasions in a disastrous Champions League group stage for Barca.
United also did so last week thanks to rapid transitions and David de Gea and the full-backs opting to play long balls into the channels looking for the quick forwards and bypassing the press.
Jadon Sancho is back in the United side and was on target in Sunday’s win over Leicester City
In the end, United had to settle for a draw despite having enough chances to win the first leg
Deliveries from wide positions gave Barcelona problems all evening.
Inside the first 20 seconds of the first leg, Fred was flinging himself at a Fernandes cross from the right, Rashford surged down the right channel to score from a seemingly impossible angle, and then burned Raphinha on the same side in the lead-up to United’s second, an own goal.
Width, speed and countering will give United an excellent chance of winning at Old Trafford.
Xavi faces a midfield dilemma
Barcelona will be depleted in midfield for the second leg, with regular starters Pedri and Gavi sidelined through injury and suspension respectively.
How best to set up in this area will have occupied Xavi’s mind all week.
We can trace this midfield conundrum back to mid-October and Barca’s first big away game of the season.
He went to the Santiago Bernabeu to face Real Madrid, played a 4-3-3 system with Raphinha and Ousmane Dembele (another absentee through suspension) as wingers. It left Barcelona over-run in midfield and they lost 3-1.
Barcelona lost 3-1 to Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in October after Xavi’s game plan faltered
The Barcelona coach learned a harsh lesson about setting up his midfield in big matches
The two wingers idea in big matches was abandoned there and then, with Xavi playing an extra midfielder.
If that was to be Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Gavi at Old Trafford, with the latter two pushing forward when needed to support the attack, you’d think United were in trouble.
In their absence, the quartet could be made up by Sergi Roberto and Franck Kessie coming in to join Busquets and De Jong but that would leave the bench devoid of a senior midfielder.
Another option would be to revert to 4-3-3 and use Ferran Torres as a winger – he impressed against Cadiz at the weekend, playing arguably his best 45 minutes for the club.
If Xavi goes with this formation, he could learn lessons from Real Madrid’s comeback from two goals down to beat Liverpool 5-2 at Anfield on Tuesday night.
Frenkie de Jong is chased down by Bruno Fernandes during last Thursday’s first leg
Barcelona will be without Pedri at Old Trafford after he suffered an injury in the first match
Carlo Ancelotti played Rodrygo and Vinicius Jr either side of Karim Benzema, leaving just three in midfield and they were swamped in the opening 15 minutes.
But an instruction to Rodrygo and Vinicius to protect the full-backs behind them stemmed the flow and, in the second-half, Ancelotti switched Fede Valverde to the left to help Nacho handle Mohamed Salah.
While Xavi really doesn’t like playing a 4-4-2, you sense he’ll need four players in midfield to avoid being over-run by United as Real were in those early stages.
Who partners Casemiro?
Ten Hag doesn’t like making too many changes to his strongest XI as we’ve seen all season long as United battle in four competitions.
But he does have his own key decision to make in midfield – who partners Casemiro.
The Brazilian was essentially made for occasions such as this and his ball-winning ability and smart positioning is a huge part of the reason why United can now go toe-to-toe with the likes of Barca.
Casemiro will be the springboard for many a United attack on Thursday night, just as last week, and the former Real Madrid player would like nothing more than to dump their rivals out of Europe.
Casemiro was as effective as always for United last week and is central to their chances
Last week, Ten Hag opted for Fred and his tenacity aided United’s press, helping to keep De Jong quiet for the most part. Fred also stepped forward to play the odd very good pass, such as the through ball into Rashford for United’s first goal.
It was one of his better outings but, as has been the case pretty much since he arrived at Old Trafford, the jury remains out.
Fred is susceptible to spells within games in which he’ll give away possession with a sloppy pass, hare after an opponent and bring them down with a clumsy foul.
It infuriates Ten Hag and United can ill-afford Fred picking up a soft yellow card as they attempt to contain Barcelona’s passing game.
The return of Marcel Sabitzer from suspension, therefore, does offer an alternative.
The Austrian, on loan from Bayern Munich, has started life at United pretty well and there’s already been talk of him signing long-term in the summer.
He could bring the same energy as Fred but also more assurance when passing as United look to transition at speed. It’s a big call for Ten Hag to make.
Fred performed well in the nou Camp, with Gavi struggling to stop him in this picture
Ten Hag could opt for Marcel Sabitzer (left) as an alternative to Fred in United’s midfield
Wout has a big role to play
He has scored just once in 10 games but Wout Weghorst undoubtedly has a role to play in United’s forward line.
The Dutchman has never been a prolific striker and any United fans who hoped he’d be the new Ruud van Nistelrooy or Robin van Persie were being deluded.
Ten Hag has recognised this and dropped him back from centre forward to the No 10 role. Basically, a 6ft 6in target man 30 yards from goal that team-mates can ping long balls at, like the pin on a golfing green.
He isn’t especially good aerially for such a tall player but he can control on his chest and seek out the right pass wide left or right to keep United moving.
Weghorst also joins in with the pressing and he was key in ensuring that long-time United transfer target De Jong was largely frustrated last week.
Barcelona didn’t quite know what to do with Wout Weghorst playing at No 10 last week
Weghorst was played clean through at one stage but was unable to take the opportunity
If Weghorst gets really good at his job, he could play like Harry Kane did at Tottenham under Jose Mourinho but given he’s only on loan, he is simply a point of difference in United’s attack.
Weghorst should have scored when played through during the first-half in the Nou Camp and he should probably score more full stop.
But Barcelona didn’t like playing against this tall, angular man and Weghorst can do a similar job on them at Old Trafford.
United must be wary of Barcelona’s set-pieces
United look susceptible at Barcelona’s corners and free-kicks on several occasions in the Nou Camp and they must tighten up for the rematch.
The most obvious example was the deep Raphinha corner that evaded everyone in United colours and was glanced in by Marcos Alonso at the back post after the ex-Chelsea defender simply ghosted away from Fred’s loose marking.
There was also the 85th-minute Torres free-kick that nobody wanted to clear until Casemiro smashed the ball against his own post under pressure from Andreas Christensen.
There’s no reason to suggest Barcelona will see fewer corner and free-kick opportunities at Old Trafford, so United need to wisen up.
United paired Luke Shaw with Raphael Varane in the Nou Camp, a situation hardly unusual but necessitated by Lisandro Martinez serving a suspension.
Marcos Alonso was allowed to drift in unchecked to open the scoring for Barcelona
Barcelona celebrate their opening goal through Alonso during last week’s thrilling first leg
With the Argentine back in contention this week, it’s expected he will partner Varane, which should give United a bit more grip in dealing with those situations.
Quite a few of Barcelona’s 18 chances in the first game were from just outside the United box that whistled not too far wide, while David de Gea made key saves as he always does.
United still rely on the Spaniard far too much, despite their clear and obvious improvement under Ten Hag.
Wan-Bissaka likely to be busy again
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was heavily involved in the first leg, with a lot of United’s best attacks coming down their right side.
He might have ended the evening with two assists, with cut-backs to Fernandes and Sancho resulting in missed opportunities.
Wan-Bissaka had the better of Jordi Alba and Kessie quite a few times, advancing as far as the byline before looking for the cross.
If Barca crowd central midfield areas and play without wingers as mentioned earlier, Wan-Bissaka could have a lot of scope to get forward.
The battle between Aaron Wan-Bissaka (left) and Jordi Alba (right) could again be pivotal
But he needs to be careful. There was one occasion last week when he allowed a ball played across the United box by Fernandes to bounce across his body and Alba nipped in.
Wan-Bissaka made a recovery tackle on the stretch but De Gea was still required to save at his near post.
It’s a lesson that should have been absorbed and the battle on that side may well determine who goes through.
Source of data and images: dailymail
The post Manchester United and Barcelona Europa League second leg could be another classic first appeared on Elrisala.
Squint and you could almost see Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke carving open Barcelona’s defence with intricate one-twos and Rivaldo beating Peter Schmeichel with a bicycle kick. Last week’s first leg between Barcelona and Manchester United in the Nou Camp was a modern day classic and a worthy heir to those thrilling 3-3 draws back …
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