Dubai: Barcelona host Manchester United at the Camp Nou on Thursday night in what promises to be a blockbuster encounter between the two European juggernauts.
The clubs have etched their names into Champions League folklore but are meeting in Europe’s secondary club competition. Still, the first leg of their Europa League playoff promises to a spectacle.
The Spanish giants enter the Europa League knockout rounds for the second successive season after failing to secure a top-two spot in their Champions League group earlier this season.
Xavi’s side, who have already won the Spanish Cup this year, are on a 16-game unbeaten run in all competitions which includes nine wins in their last 10 La Liga matches. They are in a commanding position and with their rivals and reigning champions Real Madrid suffering a blip in form they look set to lift their first La Liga title in four years.
Barca are currently 11 points ahead of Real and are aiming to become Europa League champions for the first time but they have lost five of their last 11 European games at Camp Nou. However, they have won each of the last four meetings against United.
The Red Devils have competed in the competition on six occasions of the last 12 seasons and but had to settle for a second-placed finish behind Group E winners Real Sociedad. That meant Erik Ten Hag’s side had to enter the playoff round as opposed to booking an immediate qualification spot in the last 16.
United are looking good and are still competing on all fronts this season. They have the League Cup final clash against Newcastle United to come later this month and a FA Cup fifth-round tie with West Ham in March. They are also just five points off the Premier League summit. They now focus their attention to the trip to Catalonia where they will aim to win their first-ever game against Barcelona at Camp Nou at the fifth time of asking.
They will be boosted by the fact Barca will be without key duo Ousmane Dembele and Sergio Busquets with respective hamstring and ankle injuries. But Xavi has a wealth of talent in his squad and can play either Gavi, Ferran Torres or Ansu Fati on the left flank. Franck Kessie will likely come in for Busquets and partner Frenkie de Jong and Pedri while striker Robert Lewandowski will aim to be amongst the goals.
United have a huge injury list and are still without Donny van de Beek, Christian Eriksen, Anthony Martial, Scott McTominay and Antony, while Lisandro Martinez and Marcel Sabitzer are both suspended.
But Ten Hag will be buoyed by the return of Brazilian Casemiro who has served a two-match suspension and he will partner compatriot Fred in centre-midfield.
Barcelona are flying this season and are the favourites to win the first leg but Xavi knows his side will need to take a strong lead for the second leg at Old Trafford in two weeks time as United too are looking very dangerous. There may not be too many goals in this one but it still has the makings of a classic.