On Wednesday, Barcelona face another tough test in the shape of Manchester United. The Spanish champions are in good shape after victory over Atletico Madrid despite dropping two points (which could’ve easily been three before some Messi and Suarez magic) against Villarreal, meaning two gigantic fixtures await.
Looking forward to Manchester United though, the reason for their dramatic surge since the dismissal of Jose Mourinho can be explained by the form of Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Romelu Lukaku. Let’s take a look at how these players have impacted their squad and how their form can impact the Champions League tie dramatically.
Firstly, let’s start with Paul Pogba. The Frenchman seemed a prisoner in Jose Mourinho’s defensive system – someone who looked lost when only expected to play defense and unable to demonstrate his creative flair. Since the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he has transformed into the Pogba that led France to World Cup glory this past summer.
Pogba influences games on both the defensive and offensive side, sometimes winning the ball back on United’s half before marauding down the middle in a couple of seconds to score a goal. In order for Barcelona to be successful against United, the midfield must be aware of his uniquely timed runs. Sergio Busquets will shoulder a majority of this work, no doubt, but Ivan Rakitic, Arthur, or Arturo Vidal will also have to place some importance on tracking the Frenchman all over the pitch.
Moving to the front line, Marcus Rashford has demonstrated why he is starting for a club the size of Manchester United at such a young age. The England international has been scoring at will and proving that his pace and clinical finishing is something that can alter games immediately.
Look no further than Manchester United’s recent Premier League game against Watford – Watford controlled the pace and held a majority of the attacking chances in the first half until a startlingly quick counter-attack ended with a Rashford goal.
Many will point to Rashford’s inexperience in the Champions League as a downside for the player, but the 21-year-old proved his poise in the largest moments with a 90+ minute penalty goal to seal Manchester United’s place in the last eight against Paris Saint-Germain. Quick, clinical, and calm in big situations, Rashford will be a handful for the Barcelona back line, especially the pairing of Gerard Pique, Clement Lenglet, and/or Samuel Umitit.
Another Frenchman, but this time an attacker, Anthony Martial is another forward that has proven his stature at Manchester United this calendar year. With a playing style similar to Thierry Henry; Martial can start a lung busting run, blow by two defenders, shimmy past another three, and deliver a hips opened curler straight into the bottom right corner.
Whether it is Nelson Semedo or Sergi Roberto, the Barcelona full-backs will have to be diligent of Martial’s pace, finishing, and trickery on the ball. In their 1-0 victory over Real Madrid, Sergi Roberto effectively took Vinicius Junior out of the game by being well positioned and unafraid of the youngster’s tricks on the ball – another performance like that can be the difference in Barcelona coming out winners.
Last but not least, Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian striker has been scoring goals whenever he has been included in the lineup and possesses a starkly different challenge when compared to Rashford and Martial. Yes, Lukaku also has blistering pace, but he also is one of the strongest forwards in modern football. Pair those two aspects of his game with the Belgian’s proven track record of clinical finishing, and you can understand why Barcelona’s defense might face the toughest challenge of the current campaign.