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Europa League knockout round play-off:  United, Barca renew hostilities tonight

 The first leg lived up to the pre-match hype, and now Manches­ter United and Barcelona renew hostilities at Old Trafford tonight to determine who will progress from their Europa League knock­out round play-off tie.

The two continental giants, who competed in the Champions League final only 12 years ago, played out a 2-2 draw at Camp Nou last week, and a similarly ex­hilarating contest can be expected at the Theatre of Dreams.

Even when Marcos Alonso headed home at the back post to

 open the scoring in the first leg, Man United always possessed a route back into the tie courtesy of the red-hot Marcus Rashford, whose near-post finish preceded the cross, which Jules Kounde would turn into his own net.

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However, the reinvigorated Blaugrana ensured that everything would be left to play for at Old Trafford when Raphinha’s ball into the box evaded everyone before nestling into the bottom corner, and interest would have been piqued when Erik ten Hag used the term “rubbish” to describe his side’s first-half performance against Leicester City on Sunday.

Conceding chance after chance to the wasteful Foxes – who could not find a way past an inspired David de Gea – Man United still managed to get to half time with a one-goal lead thanks to Rashford, who doubled his tally prior to a Jadon Sancho finish in an eventual 3-0 Premier League victory – one which puts them just three points behind second-placed Manchester City.

Talk of a possible Premier League title charge is by no means unfounded for the Red Devils, who could technically still end the season with a quadruple, as they also gear up for Sunday’s EFL Cup final against Newcastle United and an FA Cup fifth-round tie versus West Ham United.

With a trip to Anfield also to come on March 5, the next fort­night can certainly be described as a season-defining period for Man United, whose unbeaten run in all tournaments stands at eight match­es, and they have struck at least two goals in each of their last nine.

Turning Old Trafford into a for­tress once again, Ten Hag’s charges have 14 wins and a draw to show from their last 15 home matches, but both Real Sociedad and Atletico Madrid won at the Theatre of Dreams in 2022, and Barcelona would do well to take a leaf out of their Spanish counterparts’ book.

Being demoted to the sec­ond tier of European football for the second year running was nothing short of disastrous for a cash-strapped Barcelona, who are potentially just 90 minutes away from another premature exit from continental competition – one which may not have such dire consequenc­es this time around though.

As former midfield maestro, Xavi, now works his magic in the dugout, Barcelona have built up an eight-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of the La Liga table, and comfortably returned to winning ways over Cadiz at the weekend – Sergi Roberto and Robert Lewand­owski netting in a 2-0 victory.

Also boasting their own stellar unbeaten streak of 18 matches – 16 of which have ended in victory – the Catalan powerhouses travel to Old Trafford having won each of their last 11 away games in all com­petitions, although Bayern Munich and Inter Milan have both put Xa­vi’s men to the sword at the Allianz Arena and San Siro this season.

Barcelona, nevertheless, have a penchant for avoiding defeat against Man United, who are now winless in five games against the Blaugra­na since the 2007-08 Champions League semi-finals, but dreams of a highly sought-after piece of European silverware must now end for one giant rising from the ashes. —SportsMole

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