There won’t be many neutrals or even partisan fans who would give Manchester United a hope of reaching the Champions League semi-finals – but the previous round is a good indicator of what drama football is capable of conjuring.
Their rich history with quarter-final opponents Barcelona can also serve as a motivating factor for the Red Devils as they look to finish the season with silverware – however remote the possibility – as well as reboot the resurgence overseen by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
The 3-1 win in Paris to haul United into the last eight was undoubtedly the best result of Solskjaer’s reign so far, and went some way in securing the manager’s job on a full-time basis.
But rather than serve as a continuing catalyst for the change implemented under the Norwegian – seen as not very strong tactically when he first was put in interim charge at Old Trafford – it feels a little like United peaked in Paris.
Since that epic result against Paris Saint-Germain, United have slipped to three defeats in their following four games. Their sole win was a scrappy and barely deserved 2-1 home triumph against FA Cup finalists Watford.
A pair of defeats to Wolves, meanwhile, has seen them lose ground in the race for the Premier League’s top four – defeat to Arsenal also hindered their progress – and exit the FA Cup quarter-finals, a competition that was their best hope for ending the season with a trophy.
Paul Pogba’s loss of form is a concern, while Solskjaer is without Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera – two of his most important and resurgent players in recent months – for the visit of Barcelona. Herrera’s future is also up for discussion and a worrisome run of results has contributed to a feeling of unease around Old Trafford.
However, United have risen to the occasion consistently under Solskjaer, so a Champions League quarter-final against star-studded Barca could serve as the perfect stage to jolt them from their recent slumber – rather than a fixture to fill them with fear.
A look into the annals of history of this fixture is also something the boss might have alluded to frequently in the build-up to this monumental game.
From marvellous Lionel Messi and the magic in the boots of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford that we hopefully will get to see on Wednesday, to Ronald Koeman’s rocket in Rotterdam and a Paul Scholes pulveriser that put the Red Devils in the 2008 final. This is a special fixture that has produced some classic encounters and memorable European nights down the years.
To think, it’s been nearly 11 years since a tense and tight two-legged semi-final tie was settled by that Scholes scorcher at Old Trafford – on a night when an emerging Messi had threatened to tear United apart single-handedly.
Of course, the two sides have met since then – twice – but over one game, in the finals of the 2009 and 2011 competition. United were good back then but perfect Barcelona were at their peak. Pep Guardiola’s side purred in an era where they had no equal.
United must evoke memories of 2008 – that Scholes goal paved the way to the final, which they won so memorably in Moscow against Chelsea. They might also look back further and to 1991 and another final – the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup, where a Mark Hughes brace cancelled out Koeman’s fierce strike from range that crept past Les Sealey and effectively kick-started the gluttonous period of success under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Seven years earlier, Bryan Robson – who pretty much dragged insipid United through the 1980s – scored two as United overturned a 2-0 first-leg defeat to progress to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals at the expense of Diego Maradona’s Barca.
A Graeme Hogg own goal and Juan Carlos Rojo’s strike looked to have been enough for the hosts in front of 94,000 at the Camp Nou, but Captain Marvel’s double and Frank Stapleton’s opener at Old Trafford sent United through – the last eight tie was their first competitive encounter with the Blaugrana.
All those involved say the cavernous atmosphere – United’s home support was revered throughout the decade – has never been repeated at Old Trafford since.
Three years later and the sides met again when paired together in the group stages of the Champions League – in then just its third season. Hughes again scored as did Lee Sharpe with a delightful back-heeled goal in a 2-2 home draw.
But United – finding their feet as a rising force under Ferguson, while the same squad they had beaten in 1991 were a year later crowned European champions – were ripped to shreds in the return game, thrashed 4-0 at the Camp Nou in a game that Hristo Stoichkov scored a brace, while Romario also found the net.
Twelve goals were shared between the teams when they were again drawn together in Group D of the 1998/99 Champions League. Both games were somehow drawn 3-3.
On matchday one, Ryan Giggs, Scholes and David Beckham scored for the hosts as Barca responded through Sonny Anderson and two penalties. What was to follow on November 25, 1998, in Catalonia, is a game considered one of the greatest in the history of the Champions League.
“It was a night of complete abandon,” Ferguson had said of the encounter. Needing to win to stay in the competition, Anderson gave the hosts a first-minute lead but Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke became almost one player as they combined to put United 3-1 ahead – their telepathy for Cole to make it 2-1 was Barcelona-esque.
Rivaldo’s stunning brace earned a point but United qualified second behind Bayern Munich who, of course, they would go on to beat in such dramatic circumstances on the same pitch six months later.
A decade after the treble, it was Scholes’ stunner that sent United into the final once more, but Barca – and Messi, the only survivor from that side still wearing the famous claret and blue shirt today – would have their revenge in Rome and London in 2009 and 2011.
Just like during those halcyon days under Guardiola, Barca remain one of football’s true forces. And while they might not be quite as good as that time, they still have Messi, who is as brilliant as he’s ever been.
So, the odds are stacked against United. But they have plenty of history to fall back on. And, under Solskajer, they are finally playing football akin to the club’s great traditions. And something approaching the swashbuckling brand of Ferguson’s heyday when they regularly graced the latter stages in Europe. So there is hope.
In an era where they are no longer among the elite, perhaps they can delve into their past and summon something extraordinary.
Ander Herrera has spoken publicly for the first time regarding his ongoing contract standoff with Manchester United.
The midfielder could leave the club this summer on a free transfer despite having become a fan favourite since arriving at Old Trafford in 2014, making close to 200 appearances for the Red Devils.
There has been increasing speculation of a move to Paris Saint-Germain, while Arsenal are also thought to be interested in the Spaniard.
Herrera has previously been discussed as a potential United captain and has worn his heart on his sleeve regarding his love for the club, but admits negotiations over a contract extension have stalled.
“It’s true that I only have two months on my contract left and, today, Manchester [United] and I aren’t thinking the same and there is no renewal agreement, but my duty is to keep listening to United,” Herrera told ABC.
“What I have clear is that I’m going to continue playing in a big team.
“I take care of myself, I work hard and I want to squeeze as much out of football for as long as my body allows me to, because the day after I retire I will start to regret having retired.
“I will listen to United, of course, but also to other clubs. I do not close any doors.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remains convinced Paul Pogba will be at Manchester United next season.
Pogba was a huge disappointment in the last-16 first-leg clash with Paris Saint-Germain, sent off in the 2-0 home defeat before United overcame the French champions 3-1 in the return without him.
Solskjaer is now demanding more from the mercurial midfielder, once pursued by Barcelona themselves and now linked with a summer switch to Real Madrid.
The United boss said: “It’s not about one player, everyone has to perform at their best level and, at Paul’s best, he can run a game like this and that’s what you expect from him: that he really puts his stamp on a game like this.
“Paul’s job is to be the creator, and when we win the ball that he drives forward, so I expect him to perform.
“Paul is looking forward to tomorrow. He’s a Man United player. He’s one of our, of course, big performers and on a big stage. He knows the game against PSG was not his greatest moment.
“So, he is only focused on playing well tomorrow against Barcelona and I cannot see him not playing for Man United next season either.”
Solskjaer knows it is not just Pogba who needs to perform, but the team, as they try to blunt Barca’s brilliant attack, led by Lionel Messi.
19 - Top 5 assists among French players 🇫🇷 in the top 5 leagues since the beginning of last season— OptaJean (@OptaJean) April 9, 2019
19 - Paul Pogba
18 - Dimitri Payet
17 - Antoine Griezmann & Florian Thauvin
15 - Karim Benzema
King. @ManUtd @paulpogba pic.twitter.com/bVXGquHzIp
Having already faced Juventus and PSG this season, centre-back Chris Smalling was bullish as he said: “I say bring it on. It’s something to relish, I think.
“This season I’ve been lucky enough to face [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Kylian] Mbappe and they’re all challenges that I think I definitely relish and I think players at this club relish.
“These are the ties we look forward to. All the hard work in the group stages, this is what it’s about. We players are all itching to be on that field and show what we can do.”
Surprisingly, Messi has failed to score in any of his last 11 Champions League quarter-final appearances, last netting against PSG in April 2013.
And Solskjaer, who is hoping Marcus Rashford will be fit to bolster United’s attack, added: “He’s a fantastic player and he will go down in the history [of football] as one of the best individual players ever. I have to say. He will be difficult to stop, but it is never impossible. It’s not like it’s Messi against Man United – it’s [Luis] Suarez, [Philippe] Coutinho, [Ivan] Rakitic, [Arturo] Vidal.
“There’s so many good players, we cannot just focus on one player.
“As Chris says, we’re looking forward to it, to relish the opportunity, but this season we’ve played against Juventus and Ronaldo, PSG with Mbappe. We’ve had Chelsea and [Eden] Hazard, Neymar didn’t play against us.
“I think the better an opponent… Suarez as well and Coutinho and Messi will keep our defenders on their toes, so let’s see how we manage tomorrow.”
The win in Paris will offer hope, just as the first-leg loss at Old Trafford will provide a chastening experience, as Solskjaer said: “When you get a Barcelona, with the history and traditions of that club with the quality of their team and individuals, we know we need to step up our game.
“We know we need to perform at our best level, which we didn’t against PSG in the home game.
“But I think the outcome of the second leg has given players belief, supporters belief that it is possible against Barcelona as well.
“Confidence is high. The result and what we did against PSG and how we climbed the [Premier League] table clawing back points, the players have given themselves and supporters great confidence and belief that we can do this.
“The mood before the PSG home game was a little bit different – because they’d won so many games – but we’ve learnt from that PSG game.
“Players have talked about it, how we got dragged into making fouls, how European football is. You’ve got to be more patient in tackles. Some of these players will have some tricks up their sleeves, streetwise players. We’ve learned from that game.”