Barcelona and Man United meet at the Camp Nou on Thursday evening in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League knockout round tie. We preview the game and reveal who our Opta predictor thinks will win.
Barcelona vs Man United: The Quick Hits
- Barcelona have won four of the last five times these two teams played, and have a whopping 54.1% chance of victory once again.
- Robert Lewandowski has scored 45 goals in his last 37 games in European competition but this is his first time playing Manchester United.
- Man United have won five Europa League games in a row.
There was a time when Barcelona vs Man United was a fixture reserved exclusively for Champions League nights. Manager departures, mismanagement in the transfer market and misadventures both on and off the field have left Manchester United and Barcelona in a perpetual state of rebuilding. But for the first time in a long time, it feels like both teams have found managers in Xavi and Erik ten Hag who can bring sustained success to their clubs.
Barcelona lead LaLiga (and we give them a 93.2% chance of staying there come the end of 2022-23) while Manchester sit third in the Premier League (we give them a 61.6% chance of staying there and a 12.6% chance finishing second).
There is a level of competence at Barcelona not seen since Ernesto Valverde managed the club to back-to-back LaLiga titles from 2017 to 2018. But despite winning their Champions League group and sitting top of the league by the new year, poor performances saw Valverde sacked in January 2020.
Manchester United have found themselves in the Europa League in three of the last four years and haven’t realistically challenged for a Premier League title in a decade – this May will mark exactly 10 years since their last league title under Alex Ferguson – but belief is strong and building that Ten Hag can bring back the glory days.
Both teams would prefer to test their new-found competence in the biggest European competition but, for now, it’s Thursday night football for the two. It provides a very realistic chance for silverware for both managers in their first full seasons in charge of their clubs.
This is the ‘Sleeping Giants Derby’ but both of these behemoths of yesteryear are showing signs of waking up.
Barcelona and Manchester United have faced each other 13 times in all competitions (six Barcelona wins, three Man Utd wins, three draws). The first three were in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, while each of the previous 10 have come in the UEFA Champions League.
Manchester United have won each of their last five matches in Europe. Only once before have they won six games consecutively in European competition (their first six games of the 1965-66 season in the European Cup).
For Barça, well, they’ve lost five of their last 11 European matches at Camp Nou (W2 D4) – their previous five such defeats were spread across 101 games between 2002 and 2020.
The home side will be missing Sergio Busquets who picked up an ankle injury during Sunday night’s victory over Villarreal in LaLiga. Franck Kessie stepped in beside Frenkie de Jong in a double pivot to replace the Spanish veteran midfielder at the weekend, and expect the same on Thursday. Ousmané Dembélé remains out with a hamstring injury.
United’s two long-term injury absentees are Christian Eriksen and Donny van de Beek but Ten Hag can call upon Casemiro again after missing the Brazilian due to a red card suspension in the last two games (both against Leeds) after getting sent off against Crystal Palace.
Read the preview and prediction for the second leg here.
The last time these two teams met was in 2019 in the Champions League quarter-final. Barcelona won the first leg 1-0 at Old Trafford and they won the second leg 3-0 at the Camp Nou. That was back when Barcelona could call on the brilliance of Lionel Messi. The Argentine had scored two before Manchester United had even digested their pre-match meal of pan tumaca and café con leche.
The game was over after 20 minutes. A Phillippe Coutinho goal sealed the deal and Barcelona won 4-0 on aggregate.
The two games prior to that were both Champions League finals, in 2009 and 2011, when arguably the greatest coaches for either club, Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola were managing the clubs.
There is an asterisk attached to Barcelona’s recent form, rightly or wrongly. They haven’t lost since October but there is an underwhelming feeling to their recent run of success. Xavi Hernandez has proven less idealistic than he intoned prior to taking the role but nobody can doubt that he has been getting results.
While Barcelona’s defense has been airtight in recent months, their most potent attacker has suffered mediocre form in recent weeks. Robert Lewandowski was downright poor against Villarreal on Sunday and had been suspended since a red card against Osasuna prior to that. He has scored one goal in six games in LaLiga.
But the Pole loves European football. Lewandowski has scored 45 goals in his last 37 games in European competition, while he has been directly involved in nine goals across his last three appearances against English clubs: two goals against Spurs in October 2019, one goal and two assists against Chelsea in February 2020, and another two goals and two assists against Chelsea in August 2020. This would be his first appearance against Manchester United.
Erik ten Hag has Manchester United fans dreaming of Premier League glory once again. This year might be a stretch with Arsenal and Manchester City setting the pace but there is definitely a more positive vibe around the team and club. Things have really turned around, ironically, since Cristiano Ronaldo’s interview criticising the way the club was ran and his subsequent departure. This is very much a team in the mould of the calm and collected Dutch manager on the bench now.
Manchester United’s last group stage match saw them triumph 1-0 over Real Sociedad at Reale Arena, their fifth Europa League victory in a row this season. Alejandro Garnacho was the sole player to score in the win. Entering Thursday’s match, they are undefeated in their last six games in all competitions (W5 D1 L0).
Players to Watch:
Barcelona: Ronald Araujo
One of the reasons Barcelona find themselves in the Europa League is because Ronald Araujo was injured during key games in the Champions League group stage – he missed three of the five games Barça played. He suffered an abductor injury that saw him miss the majority of the first half of the season and the World Cup. There was talk that Uruguay might expedite his recovery to get him back in time for the tournament. That didn’t happen and Barcelona are benefitting now from a recovered and refreshed Araujo. He was immense against Villarreal at the weekend and just keeps getting better.
Araujo’s presence allows Xavi to implement one of the key features of his team’s shape. Jules Kounde plays right-back but pushes forward into attack and he can do it safe in the knowledge that Araujo can cover large swathes of space behind with his NBA-like body and Olympic-like speed. He is only 23 and there’s more to come but expect the ‘Araujo is one of the best centre-backs in the world’ opinion to become more mainstream in the coming months.
Manchester United: Casemiro
Marcus Rashford is on a tear with eight goals in nine games in the Premier League. Bruno Fernandes is flourishing under Erik ten Hag’s excellent guidance and is the leading chance creator from open play in the Premier League this season (55). But Casemiro is our player to watch here as he is set to reignite his rivalry with the old foe once again just six months after leaving Real Madrid. He has played against Barcelona 13 times picking up five wins, three draws and three defeats. Four of the last five games were victories for Real and Casemiro.
Aside from giving United defensive solidity and nous at the base of midfield, he has also scored four goals and provided five assists during his 30 games at the club. Some turned their nose up at the money United paid for the 30-year-old in the summer but United would have gladly paid twice the fee had they known just how influential the midfielder would be.
Barcelona vs Man United Prediction
Barcelona have won each of the last four matches in this fixture – the last side that Manchester United lost five consecutive matches against was Liverpool between 2000 and 2002.
The supercomputer can’t see beyond Barcelona at home this time around either and gives them a whopping 54.1% chance of victory against Ten Hag’s side. An away victory is given a 23.4% chance of happening, while the draw is at 22.5%.
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