Manchester United welcome Barcelona to the Theatre of Dreams in the UEFA Europa League play off second leg on Thursday evening. It will be a big match under the lights at Old Trafford. Last week at the Camp Nou, it was a 2-2 draw between the two teams with Marcos Alonso opening the scoring, Marcus Rashford equalising, an own goal from Jules Koundé putting United ahead before Raphinha equalised for the home side. It was a good match.
That should make this a good match too. Barcelona have been too good for United for many of the last fixtures between the two clubs but this season, this Barcelona team is something reminiscent of what you could order from Wish compared to the Barcelona of old. United will be seeking to remain the only English club to be fighting in all four competitions this season with the Carabao Cup final just under three days after this match – the first cup final of the season.
Erik ten Hag will have done his job to find a way for United overcoming Barcelona in this match, which is what seems to have been done. The players will also need to ensure they do a good job or doing just that. Marcus Rashford’s form, added to the likes of Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro, Marcel Sabitzer, Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez, not to mention Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and David De Gea could see United advance.
Predicted Manchester United Starting XI – 4-2-3-1
Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Martinez, Shaw;
Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford;
Goalkeeper: De Gea
David De Gea matches Peter Schmeichel’s 180 clean sheet record at United in the 3-0 victory over Leicester City at Old Trafford on Sunday. He now has the remainder of the season to set his own record at the club, which could come this week with United facing Barcelona on Thursday evening in the UEFA Europa League play off second leg or in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley against Newcastle United on Sunday – what a good week it would be with two more clean sheets.
De Gea has been a revelation for United this season although some supporters have criticised him for the odd mistake here and there. Look at the UEFA Champions League match between Liverpool and Real Madrid at Anfield, both Alisson and Thibaut Courtois made mistakes in that match which shows even some of the best goalkeepers in the world can make mistakes – but for De Gea, it seems to be a barometer for him with so-called supporters of this club.
The 32-year-old will see his United contract come to an end this summer but rumours suggest that Erik ten Hag wants to keep him around, although his terms would change with him no longer being one of the highest players at the club – but rumours suggest the wages will change too. Tom Heaton and Jack Butland would probably like to face Barcelona this week but unless something happens to De Gea, that would be unlikely. I think it is definite that De Gea starts.
Defenders: Wan-Bissaka, Varane, Martinez, Shaw
United’s defence has improved this season. That is a definite but it can improve more. The Barcelona test will be a big one for United, like it was last week at the Camp Nou but this one is the final test against the Catalan club. If United win this match, they will knock Barcelona out of the UEFA Europa League. I think Aaron Wan-Bissaka will start in the right-back role but with Diogo Dalot back in action, it will be a battle between them – the one who doesn’t start might on Sunday.
Luke Shaw played in the centre of the defence in the first leg and despite being largely inexperienced in the centre of defence, he did well. That said, he will be much better in the left-back role, which he favours. Shaw is in good form this season and seems to have battled back well from that double leg break some seasons ago, determined to get back on the pitch – showing good mental strength. He’s the best left-back at the club but Tyrell Malacia is seeking to learn from him.
Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez should be reunited in the centre of the defence against Barcelona – both will be seeking to make the starting XI for the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United at Wembley on Sunday too. The duo are the best defenders at the club this season which leaves Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire trying to break into the squad once again. It will be a fight for both of them as Varane and Martinez are great – rotation is needed though.
Midfield: Casemiro, Sabitzer
United’s midfield has been good this season but with little to fall back on after the injuries to Danny van de Beek and Christian Eriksen, not to mention the suspension of Casemiro, United had to move in the January transfer market to sign Marcel Sabitzer on loan for the remainder of the season. Casemiro’s suspension is now over, even though he was eligible to feature in the UEFA Europa League this season, United can bank on his returning to action for them.
The Brazilian is one of United’s best players this season and it will be great to have him back, not just for this match but for the remainder of the season. With Eriksen set to be out until late April/early May this could be the first time that we see both Casemiro and Sabitzer on the pitch together. This could work well for United with Casemiro likely to be a player that will work well with the Austrian this season. It could well be that United sign him permanently in the summer.
Scott McTominay returned to the squad against Leicester at the weekend, which will give United a boost in the midfield with just Fred and Sabitzer as the only experienced players who were fit for the last three Premier League matches with Casemiro suspended. Now United have four fit midfielders with the addition of Zidane Iqbal and Kobbie Mainoo should they be required. United are in a better position with the strength in debit to rotate to keep players fresh.
Attacking Midfield: Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford
The trio of Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford are the main outlets of United’s goals this season. Sancho scored his fifth goal at the weekend, also having one assist this season – six goal contributions. Fernandes has seven goals this season also having eight assists (having got two against Leicester) – 15 goal contributions. Rashford has 24 goals, scoring twice against Leicester, also having seven assists – 31 goal contributions. It has been a great season for Rashford.
Between the three of them 35 goals and 16 assists have been provided in total – 51 goal contributions. Obviously, there have been better seasons for United and their attacking players but this season has been a positive and United are in a much better place. The trio should start against Barcelona, which will be a big match for all three of them but they could help United to prevail against the Catalan club, which is what we want. United still want to be in all four competitions.
The injuries to both Antony and Anthony Martial are unfortunate with both likely to be doubts ahead of this match despite it being suggested that they could be back for this match. Ten Hag will give more of a picture as to who will be available during his press conference ahead of the match. It would be good to get at least one of them back but United have players on the bench that could do a job for the club, should they be required to. It would be great to have them back though.
Wout Weghorst is getting a lot of criticism for his lack of goals but few seems to be talking about what he has brought to the club since he signed on loan in January. He’s played more minutes that Anthony Martial this season and despite the back of goals and assists, I feel he has done more to compliment the other attacking players on the pitch. His hold up play is great and he creates space for other players – which is always a good thing. He has the right attitude too.
Against Leicester, he really tried to get on the scoresheet with United dominating the match for large periods of time. He missed a few and hard luck on others but he was still a positive presence and showed that ‘never give up’ attitude. Ten Hag continues to pick Weghorst despite the lack of goals so it seems clear that he is happy with what he does on the pitch. With Martial on the sidelines, Marcus Rashford has been used as the main forward at times with United shuffling the pack.
It has kept the opposition on their toes with the slight changes to the squad. Anthony Elanga is available on the bench should United need other options but with his goalscoring ability in question, the main wonder is what does he give to United and other than his pace, there is not a lot more at the moment and I would be astounded if that does chance in the future. I think he will be gone in the summer with United getting more players suited to Ten Hag’s style of play.
Substitutes: Heaton, Butland; Lindelof, Malacia, Dalot; Fred, Pellistri, McTominay, Iqbal, Mainoo; Elanga, Garnacho
United will be able to name a maximum of 12 players on the bench against Barcelona in the UEFA Europa League play off second leg. Last week just ten players were on the bench because of injury and suspension but there could be twelve players on the bench this time. I would expect to see both Tom Heaton and Jack Butland on the bench as reserve goalkeepers, which was the case last week and with other teams in the competition having two goalkeepers on the bench.
In defence, Victor Lindelof, Tyrell Malacia and Diogo Dalot could be available. Harry Maguire was injured and missed the match against his former club, Leicester City, at the weekend and it seems likely that he could also miss this match – so Bruno Fernandes will captain the club against Barcelona. If Maguire is fit to play a part, he could also take a place on the bench, which would be good for the strength in depth of the United defence and give Ten Hag other options.
In the midfield, Fred, Facundo Pellistri, Scott McTominay, Zidane Iqbal and Kobbie Mainoo could all be available. If Maguire is fit, one of Iqbal or Mainoo would be removed from the squad for this match. It would be good for United to be able to give these two inexperienced players a run out this season. In attack, unless Antony and Anthony Martial return, United could be left with just Anthony Elanga and Alejandro Garnacho against Barcelona.
Written by John Walker