After a perfect start to 2023 in domestic competition, Barcelona make their Europa League season debut with their biggest test yet as they welcome Erik Ten Hag’s Manchester United to the Spotify Camp Nou for the first leg of their Playoff tie.
Barça made a run to the quarterfinals of this competition last year, and while the main priority is to win La Liga and get back to the Champions League, the Blaugrana won’t say no to an European trophy this season and a sweet injection of prize cash that will help their financial trouble.
But getting past United to reach the Round of 16 is a daunting task as Ten Hag has revolutionized the Red Devils and made them a serious force in his very first season in charge. Here’s how we think Barça will line up for Thursday’s big game.
There is zero doubt that Xavi Hernández will take this tie very seriously and will select the best available team for both matches. The weekend league game at home against relegation-threatened Cádiz makes it an easy decision to go with the strongest XI in this one, and based on form and injuries it is pretty easy to guess what that will be.
At the back, the “BACK” quartet of Alejandro Balde, Ronald Araujo, Andreas Christensen and Jules Kounde have been the best defense in Europe since the start of the year, and all of them complement each other well and have every tool available to face any kind of attack.
The big decision for Xavi is who starts at right-back for a direct matchup against the red-hot Marcus Rashford, and based on what he’s done against Real Madrid and Vinicius Junior it’s safe to assume he’ll go with Araujo at full-back to use his speed and physical dominance against the England international, with Kounde playing his favorite position at center-back and providing additional cover against United’s most dangerous weapon.
The four-midfielder system is here to stay, even with Sergio Busquets out with an ankle injury. There’s a chance the captain will be back for the second leg, but Franck Kessie will once again have to step up and fill Busi’s shoes in this one.
Xavi went with a double pivot of Kessie and Frenkie De Jong against Villarreal which worked very well, especially in the first half, and given United play a similar style to Quique Setién’s Yellow Submarine it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 4-2-3-1 again with Franck & Frenkie working together to stop Bruno Fernandes.
Gavi will be on the left wing where he’s looking more and more comfortable lately, and Pedri continues to shine whether he’s a classic number 8 or more of a number 10 playing in behind the striker.
Raphinha had his moments against Villarreal but had an overall tough night, but without Ousmane Dembélé the Brazilian is still the best option on the right wing with Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres completely out of form and nowhere near the starting lineup.
Robert Lewandowski will be up front as expected, and after scoring five goals for Barça in the Champions League group stage he’ll look to continue finding the back of the net in continental play where he’s always played his best.
Possible XI: Ter Stegen; Araujo, Kounde, Christensen, Balde; De Jong, Kessie; Raphinha, Pedri, Gavi; Lewandowski (4-2-3-1)
How do you think Barcelona should line up against Manchester United? Let us know your thoughts, predictions and teams in the comments below!