After producing a surprise comeback to advance from the round of 16, Manchester United host Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final at Old Trafford on Wednesday (8pm live on BT Sport 2).
United’s European campaign looked to be over when they went down 0-2 at home to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their last 16 tie. A 3-1 triumph in the return in Paris, sealed with Marcus Rashford’s injury-time penalty, saw them progress on away goals.
It was the sort of turnaround that would have been worthy of high praise regardless of the context. Never before had a team recovered from a 0-2 first-leg defeat to progress in the Champions League era. That it was achieved with 10 first-team players unavailable, including the entirety of the first-choice midfield, made it even more remarkable.
Man Utd certainly rode their luck at times over the course of the tie. PSG created enough to have finished it off well before the final stretch of the second leg. Yet it was hard to begrudge the way Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side dug in, disregarded their disadvantages and kept going until the death. You always need a bit of good fortune on your side in knockout football.
That triumph saw United make it through to the quarter-finals for the first time since the 2013-14 season, and presumably played a role in Solskjaer’s promotion from interim to permanent head coach on a three-year contract. If he and his team are to progress any further, they are likely to need plenty of things to go their way again.
Man Utd come into the first leg of the tie on the back of three defeats in their last five in all competitions. The latest was a 1-2 defeat away to Wolves on Tuesday that saw them lose ground in the race for a top-four finish. Their recent record against Spanish sides in European knockout ties doesn’t make for pretty reading. Sevilla knocked them out in last year’s round of 16 in one of three defeats in their last four two-legged encounters.
Barcelona have also had the recent upper hand, with triumphs over United in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals. Overall, Barcelona have four wins to Man Utd’s three across their 11 encounters in European competition stretching back to 1984. That includes a Champions League semi-final in 2008 and the 1991 Cup Winner’s Cup final, both won by Manchester United.
The reigning Spanish champions took a decisive step towards successfully defending their title with a 2-0 win at home to Atletico Madrid on Saturday. Late goals from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez saw them move a full 11 points clear at the top with just seven matches left to play.
The focus now turns to the Champions League. Between 2006 and 2015, Barcelona were the competition’s dominant force, lifting the trophy on four occasions in a period in which no other team did so more than once. They also reached a further four semi-finals. Things haven’t gone as well for them since. They have been eliminated at this stage in each of the last three seasons.
Ernesto Valverde is well on course for a second domestic double in his second season at the helm. He has been criticised for deviating from Barcelona’s established style of play, but his slightly more pragmatic approach, sprinkled with the brilliance of Messi, has worked very well in local competition. He will, though, know that they need to give a better account of themselves in the Champions League if he is a fully shield himself from complaints.
His side certainly showed their quality with a 6-0 aggregate triumph over Lyon to make it through to the last eight. They also defeated Tottenham Hotspur, currently ahead of United in the Premier League, 4-2 away from home during the group stage. Barca have only lost once away from home all season in league and Champions League play.
Barcelona are strong enough at both ends of the pitch to make them worthy of their status as the favourites with the British betting sites to advance from this tie onwards to the final four. Their path to doing so is likely to begin with a victory away at Old Trafford on Wednesday.