Three reasons to watch Barcelona vs Manchester United in the Europa League - live on BT Sport!

Two clubs with storied histories face off in a Europa League play-off with a place in the last 16 on the line.

By Callum Rice-Coates Published: 16 February 2023 - 8.48am
Bruno Fernandes

Barcelona host Manchester United at Camp Nou tonight in a fixture that was once a Champions League final but is now a Europa League play-off.

That is an indication of the two club’s respective declines in recent years, although the future looks brighter for both this season.

With a place in the last 16 of the competition up for grabs, here are three reasons to watch the first leg, live on BT Sport 2.

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A clash of European giants

The last time Manchester United played against Barcelona was in 2019, in the Champions League quarter-finals. It finished 4-0 on aggregate to the Catalans, who went on to lose to eventual winners Liverpool in the semi-finals.

Even then, four years ago, it was almost inconceivable that this would be a Europa League fixture, a prelude to the competition’s actual knockout stages.

In 2011, one of the greatest club sides of all time, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, beat Sir Alex Ferguson’s United 3-1 at Wembley in the Champions League final, with Lionel Messi at the forefront.

Lionel Messi

And two years before that Messi was instrumental again as Barcelona once again got the better of United in a Champions League final, this time in Rome.

This is a match steeped in history then, a game that looks out of place on a Thursday night. Some of Europe’s greatest ever players, greatest managers, have represented both teams, and even now their squads are full of expensive talent.

Essentially then, this is a Champions League match in all but name. What better reason to tune in tonight?

Two clubs on the up

Barcelona’s failure to get out of their group in the Champions League was an obvious disappointment but their performances in La Liga this season have made up for it.

Xavi has taken his team to the top of the table, eight points clear of Real Madrid with just one defeat in 20 games. A goals against record of just seven suggests United might find it difficult to break down this Barcelona team.

Not that they are a defensive side. This is a team built in the image of the great sides Xavi played in; precocious youngsters Pedri and Gavi dictate things in midfield, while Robert Lewandowski provides the firepower up front and Ronald Araujo and Andreas Christensen have developed a strong partnership in defence.

Pedri, Gavi

Barcelona will be in the Champions League next season providing there is no collapse in form, and they look in good shape to go further than the group stages.

United, meanwhile, have taken huge strides forward under Erik ten Hag after a shaky start to the Dutchman’s tenure. The building blocks are still being put in place but they sit third in the Premier League and are on course to return to the Champions League.

With Marcus Rashford in the best form of his career and the additions of players like Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro adding some necessary steel, things are looking up for the Red Devils.

De Jong to show United what they’re missing

The speculation surrounding Frenkie de Jong and a potential move from Barcelona to Manchester United have persisted despite negotiations breaking down last summer.

It seemed like the Dutch midfielder was destined for Old Trafford but a deal couldn’t be done and United instead turned their attention to Casemiro.

Marcel Sabitzer was signed on loan from Bayern Munich in January to reinforce Ten Hag’s midfield and for now De Jong in a red shirt remains a dream for United fans and not a reality.

De Jong

But they will at least be able to see the Netherlands international in action, first at Camp Nou on Thursday night, then at Old Trafford for the return leg.

De Jong is certainly capable of dictating a game, even against the highest quality opposition, so there may be some conflicting emotions for those of a United persuasion if he puts on a five-star display in this match.