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Barcelona-Manchester United: Tactical Preview (UEFA Champions League Return)

How will Barcelona manage the result?

Manchester United v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: First Leg -Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Barcelona are in the driver’s seat as they prepare to host Manchester United with a 1-0 first leg advantage. United had very few scoring opportunities at Old Trafford but will need at least one goal to have a chance at advancing. Barcelona have a lead and they are at home, but United will be hoping to once again rely on an away win with a high scoreline to progress.

Fitness and form

Barcelona arrive with a lot more rest than they did in the first leg. Prior to that meeting, Barca had won a tense 2-0 match over Atlético Madrid just a few days before. United had more than twice the rest days. Now, on paper at least, both teams have the same rest days, as they both played Saturday. However, if anything, it is the Catalans who have the advantage this time. Ernesto Valverde rotated practically everyone in Barcelona’s 0-0 draw with Huesca. Marc-André ter Stegen, the goalkeeper, was the only returning starter from that first leg to start against Huesca. Arthur, Philippe Coutinho, and Jordi Alba - three other starters - logged some minutes as substitutes. Arturo Vidal started the match having been a sub previously, while Ousmane Dembélé played most of the match ahead of a possible start against United. Carles Aleñá started against Huesca after a 30 second cameo in the Champions League. But that was literally it.

For the Red Devils, about half the starters played against West Ham. Romelu Lukaku, Diogo Dalot, Chris Smalling, Paul Pogba, Fred, and David de Gea all started against Barcelona and then the Hammers. Marcus Rashford was involved off the bench, as well.

There’s a decent chance that Ole Gunnar Solskjær will play most of the same team that lost the first leg, although perhaps, he will try to vary his selection. He could, for example, set out with a more attacking XI from the start to try to get his goal.

The difference in rest being turned on its head is something to look out for.

Rafinha is still injured for Barça, although Thomas Vermaelen might be back to fitness. He’s probably not even going to make the bench, though.

For United, Ander Herrera probably won’t make the squad due to injury, although there is some suspicion it is because he has refused to renew his contract. Alexis Sánchez is expected to be available after coming back from injury, and the same is true of Nemanja Matić. Antonio Valencia and Eric Bailly are doubts but seem to be recovering well.

Team selection

Valverde made one change to the team that won the Atlético Madrid match when Barça took on United in the first leg: Nélson Semedo for Sergi Roberto. Surely the majority of the starting XI for both games will return. Ter Stegen will be in goal, with Alba, Gerard Piqué, and Clément Lenglet in defense. There’s a question of whether Semedo will return or if Roberto will reclaim his spot. With a good first leg performance, surely Semedo is the favorite. In midfield, we’re likely to see a repeat of Arthur, Sergio Busquets, and Ivan Rakitić, with Vidal and Aleñá being used in midweek. One possible change would be Sergi Roberto coming into the lineup. He was effective off the bench in the first leg and was rested against Huesca. He could come in for Arthur (most likely), or Rakitić if he is still feeling the effects of a fever that he suffered during the week. Upfront, Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are automatic, but we could see a change. Dembélé has been preferred to Coutinho in the past, so perhaps the Brazilian will lose out. The Frenchman seemed to shake off rust against Huesca, so let’s hope he’s fit enough to start again.

Solskjær could line up more attackers from the start, but I suspect he will try to repeat his approach to the win over Paris Saint-Germain. Keep it tight and try to be in a position to go for it in the last 20 minutes. He will be hoping to, at worst, keep it 0-0, or perhaps even be at a scoring draw. (Obviously, winning would be better.)

David de Gea will start in goal, with Smalling and Victor Lindelöf sure to be present in defense. With Luke Shaw unavailable through suspension, there’s a possibility that either Phil Jones or Marcos Rojo will come into the team to preserve the first leg’s 3-5-2. Ashley Young and Dalot will take positions as wingbacks once again, most likely.

In midfield, Fred, Pogba and Scot McTominay seem like locks to start. Nemanja Matić is back from injury and could force his way into the XI, but given the acceptable levels of Fred and McTominay, that may be difficult. Andreas Pereira is another possibility, and after that exists the idea of reformatting the side to fit someone like Jesse Lingard into the team. There’s also Juan Mata.

Upfront, it seems sure that Lukaku will be alongside Rashford. Anthony Martial will probably come off the bench, and perhaps there is a homecoming for Alexis Sánchez in there as well.


In the first leg, Valverde was cautious and asked his players to retain possession once the team went 1-0 up. Barça maintained the ball 67% of the time, making sure United had very few chances. Playing at home, Barcelona might be more willing to attack. Dembélé being back in fitness will help as he stretches opposition defenses.

He’ll start on the left, which is where Young will be, with Lindelöf backing him up in defense. Dembélé’s work with Jordi Alba on that flank will be a different threat than Coutinho, who is more focused on coming back for the ball and building through quick combinations. Dembélé is a monster in one-against-one situations, particularly when he’s leading a counterattack. In possession, he’s less likely to beat you through intricate combinations, but he can burn people with a quick one-two or a well-timed run.

With the 3-5-2, United expand to five at the back when Barcelona attack. That leaves the center to be marshalled by the three centerbacks, which can prevent Suárez from getting any breathing room. Finally, Fred is there to provide support from midfield. However, Barcelona should use their superiority in the midfield area to create chances. Practically speaking, that zone ahead of Fred could become slightly more open. Barça’s goal in the first match came from that area, where Busquets had time to pick out a pass. Messi and Suárez need to make runs into the box to receive from these positions, although someone like Rakitić or Jordi Alba (from a trademark Messi switch) can be late-arriving threats.

United were good at pressing Barcelona, but they may have less luck now that the Catalans are better rested and are playing at home. The English club’s biggest threat to goal might be through crosses. With wingbacks, you expect them to get to the outside and provide service towards Lukaku. The problem for them is they usually lacked quality from the crosses and that Piqué is playing like a man possessed. However, with the right ball - particularly targeting someone marked by a fullback - United can do damage.

Barça can do this if they keep their mentality and remain sharp. They had a few moments of sloppiness in the first leg and cannot afford that again. PSG found that out the hard way. The extra rest surely will help not just with physical exhaustion, but mental freshness as well.

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