Barcelona take on Manchester United in the play-off round of the Europa League in a game that will see two of the most in-form teams in Europe come up against each other across two legs.
When this draw was made, not many people would have expected this to turn out to be such a promising clash on paper. Neither team were in the best of moments back then, but things have turned drastically.
Xavi Hernandez’s Barcelona have had a perfect record in 2023, winning 16 out of 16 games across all competitions. Manchester United, on the other hand, are finally looking like a top side under Erik ten Hag.
Ideally, this clash deserves to be a Champions League game. It’s unfortunate that both teams find themselves in the Europa League, but one of the contenders for the title are set to bow out in this round.
This game also pits two of the most exciting managers in Europe against each other. There are many similarities in the way Ten Hag and Xavi see football and also in the way they set up their teams.
Considering the way both teams set up, interesting player battles emerge all across the pitch, and we at Barca Universal take a look at three such battles that could determine the outcome of the game at the Nou Camp.
1. Pedri vs Casemiro
Casemiro has been a revelation for Manchester United after signing for them in the summer from Real Madrid. The Brazilian midfielder has revolutionized the team with his performances and is arguably Ten Hag’s most important player.
Serving a domestic ban after a red card that he got against Crystal Palace, the Brazilian will be raring to go in what is a familiar hunting ground for him. The catch, though is that if there is any team that knows Casemiro well enough, it’s Barcelona.
Casemiro has been a nemesis for the Catalans for many seasons now and has been a part of some intense El Clasico rivalries. Barcelona know all too well what the Man United midfielder can and cannot do.
In Xavi’s hybrid 4-3-3/3-2-2-3 system, Pedri is likely to be the player who is set to be closest to Lewandowski and would be operating in a similar region to Casemiro. As good as the Spaniard is at escaping pressure, he will know that Casemiro will not be easy to deal with.
Casemiro is a master of the dark arts and knows how to pull off dirty challenges. He is unlikely to afford Pedri much time on the ball, without which the Spanish playmaker is not at his creative best.
The Barcelona number 8 is crucial to how the team plays and is also proving to be a goal threat of late. How Pedri manages to escape from Casemiro and still influence the game could be a huge deciding factor in the result of this clash.
2. Ronaldo Araujo/Jules Kounde vs Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford is one of the most in-form footballers in the world right now, and not many people can argue with this. The English superstar has been on fire since the conclusion of the World Cup, and he has not shown any signs of slowing down.
Rashford can play in multiple positions in attack, but if the last few games are anything to go by, then the English forward is likely to slot in at left wing. This means that he will come up against one of Jules Kounde or Ronald Araujo.
Kounde is the player who has been playing as a right-back throughout this season, but he is a centre-back by trade. Xavi has shown in the past against Real Madrid though, that he is not afraid of putting Araujo at right-back to deal with the threat of Vinicius Jr.
Considering how influential Rashford is to Manchester United’s success, Xavi could choose to repeat the old trick and put Araujo at right-back to deal with him. Regardless of who starts at right-back though, this is a player battle that is very crucial to the outcome of the game.
Both Araujo and Kounde are very solid defensively and are exceptional one-on-one defenders. Rashford has been in great form, but so has been the Barcelona backline, and between the Uruguayan and French duo, they will be hoping to keep the Englishman quiet on the night.
3. Raphinha vs Malacia/Shaw
Barcelona would have been fearing the worst when Ousmane Dembele suffered an injury that saw him ruled out for a considerable period. After all, none of the other wingers had really convinced until that point.
However, with all due credit to Raphinha, he has stepped up pretty well. The Brazilian is still nowhere near his best and can still be more influential. However, he has had a crucial role to play in almost all our goals in the past few games.
Coming up against familiar opponents in Manchester United, the Leeds United past of Raphinha is likely to motivate him to do well against his former arch-rivals. This is a glorious chance for the Brazilian to step up.
There are still question marks over who would start at left-back for Erik ten Hag. Ideally, it would have been Luke Shaw, but the Englishman is expected to slot in at centre-back in the absence of Lisandro Martinez.
This would see Tyrell Malacia take his place at left-back. The Dutch defender is talented but might not be the best defensively. Raphinha could look to take advantage of this in an attempt to hero-ball from the flank.