Editor’s Note: In order to better gauge the quality of each Champions League Quarterfinal pairing–and identify matches with upset potential–High Press Soccer will analyze combined starting XI for the match-ups. Up next: Barcelona vs. Manchester United
For most of the planet, it’s the tastiest of this year’s four UEFA Champions League Quarterfinal fixtures, a meeting of European royalty with eight continental championships between them, and a rematch of this tournament’s 2009 and 2011 finals.
FC Barcelona and Manchester United will clash on the 10th and 16th of April for a place in the semifinals. And while both proud clubs are accustomed to spending time in the business end of this competition, they arrive at this stage in quite different circumstances.
Barca are motoring along at the top of La Liga, 10 points clear of the field and in contention for a treble. They might not be quite as all-conquering as the peak of the Pep Guardiola years, but remain an elite group illuminated by the greatness of Lionel Messi.
Meanwhile ManU are still riding the euphoria of Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer’s genial leadership in the ragged wake of Jose Mourinho’s latest bridge-burning departure, happy to play the plucky underdogs as they mount a late dash to make something of their 2018/19 campaign.
Injuries and Odds
Barca are generally favored, as you’d expect given these teams’ respective places in their domestic standings and the fact that the Catalans are on a 13-game unbeaten run – they haven’t lost a match since their defeat to Sevilla in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarterfinal on Jan. 23.
|ODDS TO ADVANCE TO SEMIS|
|Manchester United +235
Overall, Manchester United are the underdog to advance, priced at +235 at FanDuel Sportsbook NJ. They’re even the underdog at Old Trafford for leg 1, listed at +260 to Barcelona’s +100 (Draw +270).
The injury picture here is clouded by the intrusion of the international break. Man United regulars Anthony Martial, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw all departed their national team camps early or did not join them altogether due to knocks of varying severity.
In most cases that’s good news for the Red Devils, mind you – all will make the Barcelona series their top priority. It also appears Solskjaer will have Jesse Lingard available at something close to full fitness as the attacker puts a hamstring problem behind him. And Alexis Sanchez is hustling to recover from a knee injury in time to be available for selection against his former club.
Paul Pogba served a red-card suspension in the second leg vs. PSG and should be available for the UCL quarters, though he’s done his side few favors by suddenly piping up publicly about his interest in a move to Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid at some point.
Barcelona’s list of casualties is shorter, but potentially more costly. Luis Suarez picked up an ankle injury in the league win over Real Betis (where Messi notched his incredible hat trick) and Ousmane Dembele aggravated a hamstring issue in the UCL defeat of Lyon, so both of them are far from certain to be ready for ManU. As always, breath will be held across the city as Messi takes the field for Argentina during the window.
*UPDATE: Sure enough, Messi picked up a groin issue in his country’s humbling loss to Venezuela in Madrid on Friday! While subsequent reports suggested it was a fairly minor injury, managing the maestro’s health now becomes another plate for the FCB technical staff to spin.
On the brighter side, defenders Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen and influential central midfielder Arthur have all recently overcome injuries and could play key roles. And while FCB face a more congested schedule in the leadup to this series, their hefty lead in La Liga gives Ernesto Valverde more room to rotate his squad down the stretch.
Combined FC Barcelona vs. Manchester United Starting XI
Both sides have utilized 4-4-2 and other looks this season, though we’ll elect for a 4-3-3 shape that’s their best, most proactive option in most cases.
As illustrious and expensive as the Mancunians’ roster may be, it’s hard for anyone to hold a candle to Barca’s. The 25-time Spanish champions boast one of the highest wage bills in the world and even when you move past names like Messi, Suarez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, individual quality abounds. This lineup reflects that.
Here’s the combined starting XI for Barcelona and Manchester United. Barcelona is blue and the Red Devils are red. For manager, I’m going with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Even in goal, where David de Gea bears a glittering resume that still isn’t enough for a segment of football hipsters who’d always pick ter Stegen and his deeply Barcelonista skill set. The Spaniard edges it here, but not by much.
Pique has struck up a sturdy partnership with Clement Lenglet at the heart of the Barcelona back line, and while they may well prove susceptible to the English archetype of the bruising target striker, they bring so many other qualities to the table as to put the likes of Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof or Chris Smalling in the shade. In the fullback slots, Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto are also vintage Barca, relatively slight in stature but attack-minded two-way technicians.
Busquets is aging, yet remains a tempo-setter par excellence and has benefitted from the intelligence of the shape-shifting Rakitic, who can fill an orthodox box-to-box role or any of the many permutations of it that Barca regularly ask him to. Arthur is a younger option who may well go on to eclipse the Croatian, but for now we’ll give Rakitic the nod. ManU’s sole midfield representative is Pogba, whose form has swung wildly from anonymous to world-class over the past year or so, but has been a lot closer to the latter under Solskaer.
Up top, Suarez – should he get healthy in time – and Messi, scorer of a whopping 39 goals and 18 assists in 37 games this season, stroll straight into this XI with no questions. That final slot is a bit trickier to fill, especially given Dembele’s injury troubles. Many on the red side of Manchester would advocate for Martial, Rashford or even Lingard here. However, Lukaku is the call for me.
Yes, his first touch sometimes escapes him and he can often look labored and ponderous. But he remains the Red Devils’ leading scorer and not by accident. His physical presence has few equals and given Barca’s past difficulties against direct, muscular teams (remember the Chelsea battles of old?), the Belgian offers the No. 9’s skill set that stands the best chance of unsettling Pique and Lenglet.
As for the managerial comparison: Valverde carries a far longer and richer resume than Solskjaer. However, the quietly inspiring Norwegian will be making his return to the Camp Nou 20 years after he scored the winner there in ManU’s legendary comeback win over Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, so I’ll make a modest concession to the powerful mojo contained therein.
United have the wind at their backs and will play without fear; that said, it will take all that and a great deal more to derail Messi’s quest for his third Champions League trophy hoist.