Manchester United travel to Spain where they will take on Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the UEFA Europa League play off first leg on Thursday evening. United and Barcelona have met in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Champions League but this will be the first time the two clubs have met in the UEFA Europa League. Barcelona’s current form is good with six wins in their last six matches. United have five wins and a draw in their last six matches.
This is a big match for United if they are to continue in the Europa League this season with the winner of this play off round reaching the last 16 in the competition. United and Barcelona have met 13 times in European competition with United winning three times, drawing four times and losing six times. In the last four meeting, United have lost all four – two of them in the UEFA Champions League final – the other two in the knockout stages of the competition.
This is an important period for United with the two matches against Barcelona this Thursday and next Thursday with a Premier League clash with Leicester City at Old Trafford in between the two Europa League matches and the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United coming just three days after the second leg match. During this time, United will contend to remain in four competitions this season and to win one of them – whilst pushing for a top four place.
Predicted Manchester United Starting XI – 4-2-3-1
Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Shaw, Malacia;
Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford;
Goalkeeper: De Gea
David De Gea earned his 179th clean sheet for United in the 2-0 victory over Leeds United at Elland Road on Sunday. He also got his 400th appearance in the Premier League, setting a new record for a non-British player to make that many appearances for one club. It has been a positive weekend for the Spanish goalkeeper. However, with Barcelona on the horizon, it will become an important week for United, who are still the only English club fighting on four fronts.
Tom Heaton and Jack Butland will be sitting in reserve should De Gea need a break but for this match against Barcelona, he should be fired up for the challenge of keeping their European competition alive this season. This will be the biggest match of the season for United and the remainder of February will see United try to progress into the round of 16 stage of the Europa League, keep their top four hopes in the Premier League alive and to try and win the Carabao Cup.
This has been a positive season for United and De Gea and the fact he has 400 Premier League appearances and is one clean sheet away from matching the record set by Peter Schmeichel, it should spur him and United on for the remainder of the season. I am sure that De Gea will want to win trophies as this could be his final season with United, unless he agrees to new terms as part of a new contract, which would steer United into another new era at goalkeeper level.
Defenders: Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Shaw, Malacia
United’s defence will take a blow for the first leg against Barcelona with Lisandro Martinez suspended after getting three yellow cards in the group stages of the Europa League this season. He will be eligible to feature in the second leg at Old Trafford – but United will need to get a decent result in this match to give them a good chance of proceeding into the round of 16 stage. Aaron Wan-Bissaka could well start at right-back, given the brilliant performances he’s had this season.
Diogo Dalot made his first start following his latest thigh injury against Leeds United on Sunday, which could be too soon for him to start again only a few days later against Barcelona – he could come on late in the match and add some defensive freshness should United need that – which it is likely they will. On the left, Tyrell Malacia will likely start at left-back with Luke Shaw likely to play in the same central role he featured in for much of the match against Leeds.
Raphael Varane and Shaw would be the best bet to partner in the centre of the defence with Martinez suspended for this match. Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and even Tyler Fredricson could well offer something later in the match should reinforcement be needed, although the latter is currently uncapped in a senior role for United. Dalot could feature for United, should he be needed in the right-back role to add something for United, should that be required.
Midfield: Casemiro, Fred
Casemiro is back for United have sat out of both matches against Leeds United due to suspension but he will not be available for Sunday’s clash with Leicester City at Old Trafford in the Premier League with that match to be his final match in his suspension. He has been rested well for the Barcelona match and for that we should be thankful. The Brazilian is a breath of fresh air in the midfield and it will be great to see him back. it would be likely that he’s paired with Fred.
Marcel Sabitzer is also suspended for this match having amassed three yellow cards playing for Bayern Munich in the UEFA Champions League this season with that ban passed down to the Europa League. We will have to wait until the second leg at Old Trafford to see both Casemiro and Sabitzer together in the midfield. Scott McTominay is also out injured for this match with Erik ten Hag fully expecting him to be out with a view to availability later this month.
That would leave Fred as the only other available midfielder to feature with his compatriot in the centre of the midfield against Barcelona. It will be a big ask for United, considering the ability of some of Barcelona’s midfielders but that does not mean Barcelona have already won this match before even a ball has been kicked. Fred and Casemiro have played well together this season and Fred is much better alongside him or Christian Eriksen, who is also out injured.
Attacking Midfield: Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford
This area is where the majority of United’s goals are this season. Marcus Rashford has 21 goals and seven assists – 28 goal contributions. Jadon Sancho has four goals and one assist – five goal contributions and Bruno Fernandes has seven goals and six assists – 13 goal contributions. That is a total of 32 goals and 14 assists – 46 goal contributions. Rashford is the in form player at this time and will be the one most likely to get goals against Barcelona.
The last United players to have scored against Barcelona at the Camp Nou were Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole back in the 1998/99 season when United won the treble. It is time that United ended the hoodoo of not scoring at the Camp Nou, which is what Ten Hag will be seeking to do. It will not be an easy feat though. Sancho has recently returned in good form and will be hoping to raise his game significantly with Antony out of action for the foreseeable future.
Fernandes was not even a United player the last time these two teams met, so his inclusion in the United team will raise the game in comparison to the midfielders that started in the 2018/19 season with the likes of Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay playing for the club, not to mention the big changes in the defence at the club which will help. This United team will be better against Barcelona and they will be seeking to keep their season alive in the Europa League.
Wout Weghorst has one goal and one assist so far this season but should have had a goal against Leeds but VAR ruled it out despite it coming off a Leeds defender, looking at the footage. That said, he has had a positive impact at United since he signed from Burnley on loan in January. Some criticise the player for not doing anything but if you watch what he’s doing, he opened up the plan on the pitch which gives United another dimension on the attack.
Anthony Martial is injured again shortly after returning from his last injury, so it almost looks like his career at United will end in the summer with his reliability not something to build United around. If he remaining seasons on his contract go the same way, United cannot rely on him being there so a new striker and backup will be needed. If he cannot stay fit for one season, it is not about being unlucky, it is about being unsuitable. Martial should be better than this.
Weghorst will enter new territory against Barcelona and it could be a match for him to shine or decline. He is a physical presence, which is what is needed for United and at the moment, the goals are coming from other areas on the pitch, which is a good thing. I would like to see him bag more goals this season but there are plenty of upcoming matches for him to be doing that. One goal and one assist is a good start but there is room for improvement for the Dutchman.
Substitutes: Heaton, Butland; Lindelof, Maguire, Dalot; Iqbal, Mainoo; Pellistri, Elanga, Garnacho
In the Europa League, United will be able to name up to 12 players on the bench, using five of them. It will give United three more options, which at the moment of time with injuries, has not put United in a much better positions. Donny van de Beek is out for the remainder of the season and Christian Eriksen is out until closer to the end of the season. Antony, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay are out for the foreseeable future. Lisandro Martinez is also suspended.
In goal, it could be that both Tom Heaton and Jack Butland make the bench, if only for one of them to make up the numbers. In defence, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire and Diogo Dalot all look set to be available for United. United would have more options if it was not down to injury and suspension for this match but it helps to keep the likes of Martinez fresh for the weekend challenge against Leicester City. It is not the best situation for United to be in right now.
In the midfield, Zidane Iqbal and Kobbie Mainoo could be the only players available because of injury, which means the likes of Casemiro and Fred will need to perform on the pitch and last 90 minutes as these players would be expected to do a lot against a team like Barcelona as they are largely inexperienced. In attack, Facundo Pellistri, Anthony Elanga and Alejandro Garnacho could be available. With injuries taken into account, ten players instead of 12 will be on the bench.
Written by John Walker