Barcelona hosts Manchester United Thursday in a matchup that has twice graced the Champions League final, but this week has the relative ignominy of taking place in the Europa League playoff round. The Catalans crashed out of the Champions League (Europe's premier competition) in the group round, while Manchester United finished runner up in its Europa League group, leading their paths to cross.
Despite the matchup's diminished stature, both fallen giants are on the rise and among the teams in the best form across the continent. Barcelona and Manchester United are both rebuilding under exciting coaches in Erik ten Hag and Xavi Hernandez and aiming to return to Europe's elite imminently.
The teams last met in 2019 when United's harsh decline in the barren decade after Alex Ferguson's managerial stint was in full swing and Barcelona's deep slide was about to begin. Five-time Champions League winner Barca won the quarterfinal clash 4-0 on aggregate, but its only player from that team likely to face United at Camp Nou is goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Barcelona has gone through a profound squad renewal since — with the club's spending last summer increasing the criticism it received after dropping into the Europa League. In Robert Lewandowski the Catalans signed a lethal striker, while Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen have established themselves as key elements of Europe's best defense. Barcelona has conceded just seven goals in LaLiga this season — 16 shutouts from 21 matches — and Xavi's team is unbeaten in 16 games across all competitions.
The manager, who starred for Barcelona in midfield in its 2009 and 2011 Champions League final victories over Ferguson’s Red Devils, is returning his team to its former glory. Barcelona beat Real Madrid to win the Spanish Super Cup in January and will face its eternal rival in a Copa del Rey semifinal.
Last season Xavi took over in November and led the team from mid-standings to a second-place finish. Barcelona has not won LaLiga since 2019 but stretched its lead over Real Madrid to 11 points on Sunday.
"It's over a year now since Xavi came and many things have changed, probably also the mentality and the way we defend," Ter Stegen said this week. "[Xavi] has a plan, maybe it's taken longer than he expected, but you see results step by step. We have a better idea of what to do on the field and this is key to success."
Red Devils rising
Manchester United, which signed Real Madrid's defensive midfield lynchpin Casemiro in the summer, along with Ajax duo Antony and Lisandro Martinez, has rapidly improved under new Coach ten Hag. The Dutch boss started work at Old Trafford last summer and after a rocky start, including a 4-0 thrashing by Brentford and a fractious relationship with club legend Cristiano Ronaldo, has turned things around. The Portuguese forward parted ways with United during the World Cup and Ten Hag's team has only been beaten once in its last 17 matches — a 3-2 loss to Premier League leader Arsenal.
Ten Hag has helped striker Marcus Rashford find his best form, with 13 goals in his last 15 games, and the team has climbed to third in the standings.
"The manager's a joy to work with," Rashford said in October, even before his spectacular run of form began.
Ten Hag also guided Manchester United into the EFL Cup final and the FA Cup fifth round, maximizing the storied club's chances of earning its first silverware since winning the Europa League in 2017.
Bruno Fernandes, who has also recovered his best form, also praised Ten Hag's impact.
"The idea of the manager is [imprinte] on the team, you can see it," the midfielder explained. "Confidence was low [before] and that creates uncertainty, but obviously I think this season the main thing is the results. You get more confident."
Both Barcelona and Manchester United arrive with high morale, but after they butt heads, one will be condemned to suffer another bruising European exit, its revival set back.
© Agence France-Presse
2-2 draw did not disappoint. Plenty for both sides to be proud of. Bring on the 2nd leg!