When the Ant crawled into the cavernous Camp Nou, many expected him to be swallowed by the sheer magnificence of his surroundings.
Ernesto Valverde’s demeanour and general outlook on the game is not expansive, so to arrive in the capital of Catalunya and continue his brand of football has been a bold approach, to say the least. Many clubs claim ownership of their own brand of football, which more often than not looks remarkably similar to most others, and fans universally slaughter the figurehead on the bench if this ideal is in any way not respected. If you choose not to regurgitate the soul of Johan Cruyff’s philosophy, you have to back it up.
In fairness to Valverde, he has. He has managed to marry the freakish individual vision of arguably the greatest player of all time with some incredibly varied personalities and styles. Philippe Coutinho, for example, has traded places with flying Frenchman Ousmane Dembélé when the latter has been out of form, out of favour or injured, and yet the two could hardly be more different left-wing options.
At Old Trafford, despite the consistent possessional advantage, Barcelona were on the back foot for a good part of the match in terms of situational superiority. The fact that Arthur Melo – so often the conduit for transitioning play from defence to attack – was hauled off after an hour or so testifies to this to an extent. Only Clement Lenglet registered a higher proportion of their total passes forward, and yet during his time on the pitch, Barcelona only had three shots on goal.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær also rotated his side significantly in their shaky 2-1 win at home to West Ham on Saturday. To see academy product Scott McTominay genuinely rested was a vote of extreme confidence in the young man’s capacity for taking on one of the most awe-inspiring cathedrals of world football. In light of Ander Herrera’s departure for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer, McTominay has an even more solid platform to put his case forward as the midfield general to lead United forward.
Barcelona vs Manchester United – Player to Watch
Sergio Busquets #5 – Barcelona
As the often unheralded lynchpin – relative to his more glamorous, illustrious teammates at least – of Barcelona, Busquets has the metronomic discipline to hold the entire side together. At times this season, Ernesto Valverde has deployed his Croatian sidekick Ivan Rakitić alongside him, and at others in more advanced positions; a more conservative 4-4-2 setup has frustrated opponents, the classic Barcelona 4-3-3 has torn most apart. Whatever is going on around him, Busquets has maintained a remarkable consistency.
Romelu Lukaku #9 – Manchester United
The hulking Belgian’s path at Old Trafford has been a winding one with more strife than success. Ever since exploding onto the world’s conscience as a raw 16-year-old at Anderlecht, his game has been centred around brute strength, pace and confidence, and yet as a Manchester United player his touch, movement and assuredness has deserted him for large periods. Under José Mourinho he was played rather unimaginatively as a lone striker with his back to goal, which is not a role he naturally excels in; instead, under Solskjær, he has been used either alongside a strike partner or out wide where he can dominate full-backs and turn to face goal more regularly.
It goes without saying that United will enjoy even less possession at the Camp Nou than they did at home. One of the key outlets in the first leg was Lukaku. His flexibility will be key to unsettling a Barcelona back-line that is highly likely to be imbalanced in transition due to the fluctuating habits of the four men.
Barcelona vs Manchester United – Match Stats
Barcelona’s narrow first-leg victory in Manchester last week was their first knockout win away from home (D2, L4) in seven attempts.
Barcelona have never lost to United in the Champions League at home in four meetings (W2, D2).
The Catalan giants are unbeaten in 30 Champions League home games (W27, D3), losing just once in almost a decade since Rubin Kazan famously won in October 2009.
Manchester United have won just two of their last 16 matches against Spanish opposition, but have lost just twice in 10 visits to Spain.
They are only the fourth side to come back from a first-leg home defeat in the Champions League era. United have scored nine goals in their last four Champions League away games.
Barcelona vs Manchester United – Possible Lineups
Ter Stegen – Semedo, Piqué, Lenglet, Alba – Busquets, Rakitić, Arthur – Dembélé, Suárez, Messi
Head coach: Ernesto Valverde
De Gea – Rojo, Lindelöf, Smalling – Dalot, Fred, McTominay, Young – Pogba – Lukaku, Martial
Head coach: Ole Gunnar Solskjær
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