Barcelona and Man United add glamor to Europa League playoff

They’re two members of European soccer’s aristocracy who, not so long ago, were meeting in Champions League finals.

Now Barcelona and Manchester United are going head-to-head in the unlikely confines of a Europa League playoff match.

Not that they are playing like also-rans of the continent.

“At the end of the day, we don’t deserve to be in the Champions League and neither do they. But the level is still very high,” Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez said Wednesday.

Indeed, the clubs with two of the biggest followings in world soccer are in a good place on the field, especially considering the plight they have found themselves in recent years.

Barcelona is emerging, very slowly, from a crippling financial crisis that cost the club Lionel Messi and plenty more. Its economic situation is still grave — Barcelona’s latest accounts show the club is more than $650 million in debt, hardly helped by a group-stage exit from the Champions League — but the team is performing so well that it has an 11-point lead in the Spanish league.

United, meanwhile, is rising up the Premier League and could win its first trophy in six years when meeting Newcastle in the final of the English League Cup later this month.

In that sense, both teams have reason to believe they will be back competing at the top of European soccer soon.

In the meantime, their presence in the Europa League adds glamor to a competition that is widely viewed as the Champions League’s little brother. The only disappointment for fans is that the meeting comes so early.

“I think Barcelona and (us) as well (would) have preferred to play in the final,” United manager Erik ten Hag said. “Hopefully, everyone is fit for Barcelona and for us. So we see a game at the highest level.”

Barcelona is in good form, with its last loss coming against Bayern Munich as it exited the Champions League in October.

It is in the Europa League because it couldn’t win a group game against either Bayern or Inter Milan. But under Xavi, the team has now won eight in a row in all competitions, with striker Robert Lewandowski taking on the role of star player.

“I really like his team, the attacking way of play,” Ten Hag said. “I think he is in the right direction. I think it’s going to be a good challenge between Manchester United and Barcelona.”

Xavi, who won two Champions League finals on the field with Barcelona against United, has got his team playing as well as it has all season despite injuries to Ousmane Dembélé and Sergio Busquets. Spain internationals Pedri and Gavi are driving the midfield, while Raphinha is filling in nicely for Dembélé.

Ten Hag has had to contend with his own absences, but has still been able to put United in a position to compete for the league title. Midfielder Christian Eriksen will miss the majority of the rest of the season with an ankle problem and Anthony Martial continues to struggle to stay fit.

Given United terminated Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract in November, Ten Hag has been left short in attack, which is why the form of Marcus Rashford has been crucial. The England forward, who has been linked with a move to Barcelona in the past, has scored 13 goals in his last 15 games and 21 all season.

Jadon Sancho is also back after being given time off to rediscover his form and adds to United’s options up front.

Ten Hag has a decision to make in attack, with January loan signing Wout Weghorst failing to provide much of a goal threat so far, scoring once in eight appearances. With Sancho back, Rashford can be switched from the left wing into a central position, where he has managed to score from in each of United’s last two games when moved there during the match.

“Rashford is one of the most dangerous strikers,” Xavi said. “He’s very fast, a good dribbler, good in one-on-ones and very dangerous in the transitions.

“We need to take care of all of United’s players, but Rashford is certainly one of the most dangerous in Europe.”

Brazil winger Antony, midfielder Scott McTominay and Martial were absent as United trained on Wednesday morning before flying out to Barcelona. Lisandro Martinez and on-loan Marcel Sabitzer are suspended for the first leg, but Casemiro is available after missing the last two league games through suspension.


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