Competition/Round: 2022-23 UEFA Europa League, Knockout Playoffs, 1st leg
Barcelona Outs & Doubts: Sergio Busquets, Ousmane Dembélé (out - injury)
Man Utd Outs & Doubts: Anthony Martial, Antony, Christian Eriksen, Donny Van De Beek, Scott McTominay (out - injury), Lisandro Martínez, Marcel Sabitzer (out - suspension)
Date/Time: Thursday, February 16, 2023, 6.45pm CET/WAT (Barcelona & Nigeria), 5.45pm GMT (UK), 12.45pm ET, 9.45am PT (USA), 11.15pm IST (India)
Venue: Spotify Camp Nou, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Referee: Maurizio Mariani (ITA)
VAR: Massimiliano Irrati (ITA)
How to watch on TV: TUDN (USA), Not Available (Canada), BT Sport 2 (UK), SONY TEN 2 (India), SuperSport (Nigeria), Movistar Liga de Campeones (Spain), others
Following a very important win over Villarreal to maintain their perfect record in 2023 and their comfortable margin at the top of the La Liga table, Barcelona turn their attentions to Europe as they begin their Europa League journey with the first leg of their knockout playoff tie against Manchester United at the Greatest Stadium on Earth on Thursday night.
The new Europa League knockout format established last season eliminated the Round of 32 and replaced it with eight playoff ties between the teams that finished third in the Champions League group stage against the sides that came in second in their Europa League groups. The eight group winners from the Europa League await in the Round of 16, but it’s safe to say that this is the most anticipated tie of the entire tournament no matter what else happens.
Barça and Manchester United have a rich history of high-profile European clashes, and it’s pretty sad that they are facing each other at this stage of the Europa League. But both sides seem to be on their way back to the top of the continent, and both are looking to prove their credentials against each other.
This is truly a fascinating matchup between sides who are very similar in their current trajectory, the transformational impact of their young, vibrant coaches, and the style of play they employ. Both are in fantastic form and the winner of this tie will be the unquestionable favorite to win the Europa League, and this one truly is almost impossible to call.
From a Barça perspective, they are perfect in 2023 and riding a 16-game unbeaten streak in all competitions, the best under Xavi Hernández. The coach found a four-midfielder system that works on both ends, and the defense led by the BACK quartet is the best in the continent right now.
But all of the Blaugrana’s impressive work since the World Cup has been done in domestic competition, and the last memory of European football is a hugely disappointing Champions League group stage with only one point in four games against Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. Barça were not able to compete four months ago, but their best defenders were all injured and Xavi was still trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
This is a completely different team now, one that is mature, patient and very difficult to beat, and while the attack isn’t scintilating or high-scoring it is creative and efficient enough to get results against the best teams in Spain, home or road. Now they have to prove they can do it in Europe, and there is no tougher test than Erik Ten Hag’s United.
After a rough start to his life in England the Dutchman has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt just how great of a coach he is. Ten Hag has utterly transformed United in six months from a boring, slow, vulnerable team to one that suffocates opponents and is capable of scoring in every way imaginable.
They want to keep possession, but they can destroy you on the counter and have tall, dangerous players in set pieces. Marcus Rashford is having the best season of his career and becoming every bit the player he was supposed to be when he exploded onto the scene half a decade ago. Casemiro has changed their midfield, and Bruno Fernandes is back to his best.
They do come into this one with a lot of injuries and two key players out through suspension, but the spine of the team is intact and Rashford will play. It cannot be overstated just how great he looks right now, and Jules Kounde and Ronald Araujo have to play perfect games to slow down the United winger. He’s their main outlet and their big hope of getting a result at Camp Nou, but the beauty of Ten Hag’s system is that it empowers everyone to be a threat if given time on the ball and space to attack.
Barça’s great defense will face its biggest test, and if they can hold their own the attack has a real chance of getting goals against a United backline missing Lisandro Martínez, the heart and soul of their defense. Luke Shaw will be his replacement at center-back, and Barça simply must take advantage of that matchup if they have any real hopes of winning.
These are two giant clubs in great form playing a Champions League-worthy knockout tie in the Europa League in February. It’s weird, it sounds wrong, but it’s what we got. And it should be all kinds of fun.
Let’s freaking dance.
Barcelona (4-2-3-1): Ter Stegen; Araujo, Kounde, Christensen, Balde; De Jong, Kessie; Raphinha, Pedri, Gavi; Lewandowski
Man Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Dalot, Varane, Shaw, Malacia; Casemiro, Fred; Sancho, Fernandes, Rashford; Weghorst
Xavi’s Barça are in amazing form but haven’t been tested in Europe in 2023. Ten Hag’s United are in amazing form but haven’t been tested in Europe in 2023. These two teams couldn’t be more similar, and I believe the game will show exactly that: 1-1 draw, and everything left to be decided at Old Trafford.