The Camp Nou will forever be a happy hunting ground for Manchester United thanks to their Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s dramatic stoppage-time goal to beat Bayern Munich and win the 1999 Champions League to complete their historic treble.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Looking to overturn a one-goal deficit to reach the Champions League semifinals, Solskjaer brings United back to Spain to face the team who has turned Camp Nou into a cauldron as Barcelona attempt to see their way through to the last four of Europe’s most prestigious club competition Tuesday night.
Manchester United did not play all that poorly in the first leg last week at Old Trafford but still came up on the short end of a 1-0 scoreline. Though the scoresheet states it was an own goal credited to Luke Shaw, the credit for creating the goal goes to — who else — Lionel Messi, who drew his defender up before darting to collect a pass from Sergio Busquets. The Argentine then sent his cross across goal to the back post, where Luis Suarez’s header glanced off Shaw and into the net.
Though United toiled, they did not trouble Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen all that much. The loss marked the first time since 2005 the Red Devils failed to place a shot on target in a Champions League match. And this was against a Barcelona side that was universally agreed to be playing below their best, which is a compliment to United’s cohesiveness defensively and willingness to crowd Barcelona’s possession-makers.
“Yeah like you say it was frustrating but at the same time you have to stay cool and remember that the game is going to be won over two legs,” striker Marcus Rashford told United’s official website. “It was a tough game but I thought we got into some decent positions; we just struggled to create real clear-cut opportunities. We understand as a team that we have to go into the second leg with a positive mind-set and get the job done.”
The result left United needing to overturn a deficit on the road for the second consecutive round. They were able to reverse a two-goal home deficit — the first to do so in Champions League history — at Paris-Saint Germain without midfielder Paul Pogba in the round of 16, winning the second leg 3-1 in controversial and heart-stopping fashion last month when Rashford nervelessly lashed home a penalty in second-half stoppage time.
As has been the case most of the season, the fact United have a chance to reach the semifinals is in large part thanks to keeper David De Gea. He got his right boot on a drive by Philippe Coutinho late in the first half that would have made United’s road exponentially more difficult, and the Spain international returns to his home country coming off another performance that banked points for United domestically.
De Gea came up with arguably the save of the season in the Premier League in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over West Ham United, pawing away a nearly perfectly-placed downward header by Michail Antonio in the 76th minute with the match delicately poised at 1-1.
Pogba delivered a victory from the spot almost immediately after that save, converting into the lower left side netting after Anthony Martial was hauled down from behind. The victory moved United provisionally into fifth place ahead of Arsenal, who face Watford on Monday as the four-way fight for the final two Champions League spots rages intensely.
“Sometimes when the headers are very difficult for keepers, you don’t know where the ball is going so you have to react quick. I just help the team, I make the save and we won,” De Gea told the club’s official website.”
“He (Antonio) was very good in the last 15 minutes. He created a lot of danger. He hit the bar and after I make the save in the right moment and we were 1-1 and after we get the penalty. We’re happy but at the same time we need to improve a lot.”
De Gea has faced Barcelona at Camp Nou just once in his career, doing so as a 20-year-old for Atletico Madrid in 2011. Messi got the best of him that day, scoring three times as the Blaugrana cruised to a 3-0 victory. After this weekend’s win, United’s No. 1 knows there is much work to be done, but he is embracing the challenge.
“We have to improve a lot, a lot, and now we have a big challenge on Tuesday and we’ll try to win the game. After today we can go with more confidence, with the three points. It’s a big challenge and a special occasion in Spain against Barcelona on a Champions League night, so it’s going to be an amazing game.“
One enormous lineup challenge for Solskjaer will be to replace wide back Luke Shaw, who will who picked up a yellow card for the third straight match in the first leg and must sit out the second. Diogo Dalot started at left back last Wednesday as part of United’s five-man back, but with goals needed, the 20-year-old may have to fend for himself in a more traditional four-man back that will also have Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, and Ashley Young across from left to right.
United are again expected to be without influential holding midfielder Ander Herrera, though Nemanja Matic was named to the 22-man traveling squad Monday. His availability would be a huge boost for Solskjaer, who could use the Serbia international and Fred together as holding midfielders to allow Pogba to press forward in a play-making role.
Needing at least two goals to advance, United are expected to play a 4-3-3. That provides intrigue over Solskjaer’s choices for his front three. Rashford and Romelu Lukaku started in the first leg, but there are many combinations possible, including Jesse Lingard as a false nine flanked by Rashford and Lukaku. Alexis Sanchez was a surprise inclusion to the traveling squad considering the Chile international has not played in six weeks due to a knee injury.
Barcelona remained comfortably atop La Liga after a scoreless draw at last-place Huesca on Saturday. Ernesto Valverde turned over his entire outfield for the match, with Coutinho and Jordi Alba getting second-half runouts as substitutes. The Blaugrana are nine points clear of Atletico Madrid with six matches remaining and moved ever closer to their 26th La Liga title.
“I don’t know what the strategy United may have, they have won three from four away from home, including late against Juventus and Paris-St. Germain. We just have to play our way,” Valverde said at his Monday press conference. “The result from the first leg is not definitive. What we’ll try to do is make sure they don’t score. We want to win tomorrow, that is our objective.”
Ousmane Dembele could be in line for a start in the second leg at Coutinho’s expense after playing 60 minutes versus Huesca. He had been sidelined for nearly a month due to a hamstring injury suffered in the round of 16 tie versus Lyon. Messi — who was bloodied at one point during the United match following a heavy collision — and Busquets were rested over the weekend, Suarez and Gerard Pique were serving suspensions, and both Ivan Rakitic and Roberto were sidelined through illness and injury, respectively.
“The idea is for (Dembele) to be available,” Valverde said. “It’s important who starts, but it’s also important who finishes because United have people who can score late, like they did at the Nou Camp with two goals. They have great spirit and great players. We respect them because of their history and spirit, but we have to show them what we are about.”
The Blugrana are seeking their first Champions League semifinal appearance since last lifting Ol’ Big Ears for the fifth time in 2015. They have been knocked out in this round in each of the last three years, losing to Atletico Madrid in 2016, Juventus in 2017, and AS Roma on away goals last year.
Barcelona have a daunting home record in Champions League play, entering this match unbeaten in their last 30 (27-3-0) at the Camp Nou since a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the second leg of their 2013 semifinal tie. They are 5-1-0 against Premier League teams during that run, though the draw came in group play this season versus Tottenham Hotspur.
The Spanish side have tallied 93 goals during that unbeaten run while shipping just 15. Messi alone has 31 goals and assisted on 11 others while playing in 26 of those contests.
Barcelona have won three straight over United, with the previous wins before last week coming in the 2009 and 2011 finals. The winner of this match will play the winner of the quarterfinal tie between Liverpool and FC Porto, which Liverpool leads 2-0 entering the second leg.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Barcelona 2 (3), Manchester United 1 (1).
(Lionel Messi photo courtesy FC Barcelona official Twitter account)
(David De Gea photo courtesy Getty Images)