Barca, Man United clash in Europa League blockbuster

A Blockbust­er encounter between two European jug­gernauts takes place at Camp Nou tonight as Barcelona play Manchester United in the first leg of their Europa League playoff.

The two teams have previous­ly etched their names into Cham­pions League folklore, but their latest meeting over two legs will be their first in Europe’s second­ary club competition.

Barcelona enter the Europa League knockout rounds for the second successive season, after they could only finish third in their Champions’ League group earlier this season behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.

Despite thrashing Viktoria Plzen both home and away, claim­ing just one point across four encounters against Bayern and Inter prevented the Catalan giants from securing a top-two spot.

Since losing 3-0 at home to Bayern in their penultimate group match on October 26 – their only defeat at Camp Nou in 14 games so far this season – Xavi’s side have excelled on the domestic front, putting together a 16-game unbeaten run across all competi­tions, including nine wins in their last 10 La Liga matches – the Catalan club latest success being a slender 1-0 win away at Villarreal last weekend.

Barca’s near-immaculate top-flight run has coincided with a blip in form from rivals and reign­ing champions Real Madrid, and Xavi’s side are now on course to lift their first La Liga title in four years, as they boast a 11-point lead at the summit, albeit having played a game more.

While five-time Champi­ons League winners, Barcelona would prefer to be competing in Europe’s premier club compe­tition, the prospect of becoming Europa League champions for the first time is sure to motivate Xavi and co – who have already won the Spanish Super Cup this year – as they attempt to balance their domestic duties with a two-legged clash against Man United.

Barca have lost five of their last 11 European games at Camp Nou, but they head into Thursday’s contest having won each of the last four meetings with Man United. Indeed, Champions League final triumphs in 2009 and 2011 against the Red Devils were followed by a 4-0 aggregate win in the quarter-fi­nals of the same competition in 2019.

Almost 15 years on from their last Champions League triumph in 2007-08, Man United have had to get used to the rigours of Europa League football, competing in the competition on six occasions in the last 12 seasons.

The Red Devils started this year’s group stage on the wrong foot, with a narrow 1-0 home de­feat against Real Sociedad, but Erik ten Hag’s men responded well with five successive victories, although they ultimately had to settle for a second-placed finish behind Group E winners, Sociedad, on goal difference, forcing them to enter the playoff round as opposed to booking an immediate qualification spot in the last 16.

Man United are still compet­ing on all fronts this season, with a EFL Cup final clash against Newcastle United to come later this month and a FA Cup fifth-round tie with West Ham United in March, while they are only five points off the Premier League summit, although current leaders Arsenal have two games in hand at the time of writing.

That gap to the top of the table could have been shortened, if United had not dropped points in three of their last five league fixtures. Indeed, after failing to beat Crystal Palace and Arsenal on the road last month, the Red Devils managed to rescue a point in a 2-2 home draw with Leeds United last Wednesday, before returning to winning ways with a hard-fought 2-0 victory at Elland Road on Sunday, courtesy of late goals from Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho.

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