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Back under 2.5 goals when Barcelona and Manchester United do battle on Thursday. With a second leg to come, this could be a tighter match than many anticipate.
In one sense, both Barcelona and Manchester United would rather not be contesting this Europa League fixture on Thursday. These two teams have won eight Champions Leagues between them, and being crowned champions of Europe again is a leading objective for both of them.
Barcelona suffered a group stage exit from the premier continental competition for a second season running. They were handed a tough draw alongside Bayern Munich, Inter, and Viktoria Plzen, but a third-place finish was still a source of major disappointment for the Blaugrana, especially as they also failed to reach the knockout phase last term.
As for Manchester United, they are in the Europa League because they only finished sixth in the Premier League last term, missing out on the top four by 13 points. In fact, they would have been competing in the Europa Conference League right now had West Ham United managed to beat Brighton & Hove Albion on the final weekend of the 2021/22 campaign.
Barcelona are the second-favorites to win this tournament with the best online sportsbooks. Despite their poor Champions League showing, this could still be a fantastic season for Xavi Hernandez’s charges.
Barcelona are in a commanding position in the La Liga title race. At the time of writing, they are 11 points clear of Real Madrid in second, although Carlo Ancelotti’s side do have a game in hand on their arch-rivals. They are still in the Copa del Rey and have the chance to win the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history.
They head into this match in excellent form. Barcelona have won eight encounters on the bounce in all competitions. If you include a penalty shoot-out triumph over Real Betis, their winning run stretches to 11 matches. This will be a tough game for Manchester United.
Manchester United are behind only Arsenal, Barcelona and Lazio in the sportsbooks’ ranking of possible Europa League winners. If they win this knockout round playoff to advance to the round of 16, they could become the second-favorites to lift the trophy at the end of the campaign.
Unlike Barcelona, United have won the Europa League before. In his first season at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho led his side to glory in this competition. That was in 2017 - and it is the last trophy United lifted.
It has been a long five and a half years for a club that had grown accustomed to claiming silverware on an annual basis. But United have continually fallen short in recent seasons - not just in the Premier League title race, but also in the FA Cup and the EFL Cup.
However, there are signs that United are getting it together again. Erik ten Hag has done an excellent job since taking charge last summer. United are through to the EFL Cup final and are on course for a top-four finish in the Premier League.
The Red Devils have a packed fixture schedule right now, but they should still take the Europa League seriously. Facing another huge club in Barcelona should help them to do exactly that. United will see this as an opportunity to make a statement against a fellow European giant.
It looks like Ten Hag does intend to give the Europa League a good go: he rested Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane for Sunday’s victory over Leeds United. The Dutchman will now be looking for his team to extend their unbeaten run to seven matches in all competitions.
Manchester United fans are broadly delighted with where the team is at right now. After losing their first two games of the season to Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford, this looked set to be another difficult campaign for the club. Instead, they are in a good place at the moment.
This will be a huge test of their credentials, though. Barcelona have been fantastic since World Cup 2022. They are an extremely difficult team to play against, not least because they only occasionally concede goals.
Barcelona’s backline has been breached on just seven occasions in La Liga, which works out as one goal against every three games. They have won a remarkable 15 top-flight fixtures without conceding.
Manchester United will therefore have their work cut out on Thursday. Seven of Barcelona’s last 10 league outings featured fewer than 2.5 goals, and that looks like an astute selection for this game too.
One reason for that is the fact Barcelona’s matches are not especially high-scoring. Another is that this is only the first part of a two-legged tie. With another 90 minutes to play at Old Trafford, neither team will be going hell for leather this week. A tight affair is more likely than an open, end-to-end one.
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Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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