Barcelona host Manchester United for the decisive second leg of their Champions League quarter-final at the Camp Nou on Tuesday night, and the Spanish side are clear favourites after earning a 1-0 win at Old Trafford last week.
United have already staged one spectacular comeback to dispose of Paris St Germain in the previous round, but surely they won’t be able to mount another remarkable turnaround this time…or will they?
Will United go for it?
United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would undoubtedly settle for a repeat of his most famous visit to the Camp Nou: the 1999 Champions League final, when he pounced to give United the title with the second of two goals in the dying moments against Bayern Munich.
However, Solskjaer surely cannot count upon his team mustering such late heroics again, especially after they already scored in similarly dramatic circumstances to advance to this stage with a stoppage-time penalty at Paris Saint-German. Sooner or later, United’s late luck will run out.
Instead, Solskjaer will have to construct a game plan which gives his team a chance of getting the goal(s) they need before the 90-somethingth minute, and his biggest challenge is balancing the need to score with the equally pressing need to keep Barca out.
The temptation might be for United to sit back and attempt to keep things tight until the final 15 or 20 minutes when they can make a late bid for glory, but few visiting teams at Camp Nou ever prosper by adopting a passive role and letting Barca have the ball. In all probability, United will have to score at least twice rather than nicking a 1-0 and taking their chances in extra time, and Solskjaer must urge his players to show positive attacking intent even though that risks giving Barca the space to take the tie away from them.
Dembele back for good?
A similar question, of course, is faced by Barca coach Ernesto Valverde, whose team have to decide between protecting the lead they already have or going all out for the kill. Playing at home with a goal advantage against a relatively limited opponent, the team’s natural instinct will surely be the latter, and Valverde is expected to encourage his team’s attacking endeavours by elevating Ousmane Dembele into the starting line-up following his return from injury.
With his explosive pace, trickery on the ball and eye for a goal, Dembele adds an extra attacking dimension to a Barca team which is otherwise heavily reliant upon interplay between Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, along with the regular forward bursts of Jordi Alba.
Dembele is also a rather dangerous selection from a defensive viewpoint due to his tendency to take risks in possession and consequently lose the ball and expose his team to counter-attacks. Assuming Barca progress it will be fascinating to see whether Valverde trusts the young Frenchman sufficiently to play him from the start of the semi-final away leg, but leaving him on the bench for this meeting with United would surely be a touch too negative even for a naturally cautious coach like Valverde.
So Dembele, unless he has suffered an unreported setback in his recovery from injury, will probably start, and he can use the game as a great opportunity to prove he should stay in the strongest starting eleven for good.
Rested Barca; jaded United?
Last week’s first leg saw Barca head into the game in a physically fragile state, having just played a gruelling top of the table league battle with Atletico Madrid, a few days after an equally demanding 4-4 midweek draw at Villarreal; United, meanwhile, were as fresh as daisies after being given the weekend off due to their lack of involvement in the FA Cup.
This time around, however, the tables have been turned. Barca boss Valverde rested all ten of his outfield starters from the first leg at Old Trafford in Saturday’s goalless draw at Huesca, with Messi and Suarez among those who didn’t even travel to the game and instead got some valuable time to put their feet up.
United, on the other hand, were forced to work hard for a home win over West Ham, a much-needed victory in their quest to secure a top-four Premier League finish and a return to next season’s Champions League.
That could well be a significant factor on Tuesday night. Barca were uncharacteristically sloppy in the first leg, regularly playing themselves into trouble with a series of needlessly misplaced passes, and the efforts of the previous couple of games were surely a factor in that lacklustre display. United, though, had the energy to work very hard off the ball and deny Barca the room to play, but they won’t be in such a fresh condition at the Camp Nou.
At the highest level, those small differences in physical shape can make a massive difference, giving the split-second of additional time on the ball that allows players like Messi and Suarez to take advantage. And if United are at all jaded from their weekend exertions, Barca could well punish them.
Teams in three of the four Champions League quarter-finals are separated by one goal or fewer heading into this week’s second legs.
Manchester United face a return to the Camp Nou 20 years after their dramatic final victory over Bayern Munich at the ground, Manchester City have to turn around a deficit at home to Tottenham while Juventus have discovered Ajax are no pushovers.
Even Liverpool’s 2-0 advantage from the home leg against Porto is not decisive. Here, Press Association Sport looks at some of the issues surrounding this week’s matches.
NOU EASY TASK FOR UNITED
United have a 1-0 deficit to overturn as they go back to the Camp Nou in the year of their 20th anniversary of that last-gasp final win over Bayern. It is a formidable task considering the Catalans have lost at home just three times in the last three years in all competitions. They need their big players to step up and none more so than £80million striker Romelu Lukaku.
He has scored just six times in the last 16 games and those came with three back-to-back doubles, including the win over Paris Saint-Germain which got them through to this stage.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a decision to make on whether to persist with the big Belgian or opt for the more mobile, pacy Marcus Rashford and try to hit their hosts on the break.
GUARDIOLA HAS TO GET IT RIGHT
City’s quest for the quadruple mean their focus is being split three ways but being a goal down to Tottenham from the first leg is sure to concentrate minds. With Pep Guardiola’s side going toe-to-toe with Liverpool in the Premier League title race they are aware of the perils one slip-up could have, so must-win games have become the norm in the last four months.
Guardiola was criticised for his tactics last week, leaving out the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane but he is unlikely to make the same mistake twice.
Bernardo Silva’s return to fitness will help but Fernandinho remains a doubt after missing Sunday’s win at Crystal Palace. At home, City will look to overwhelm Spurs early on so they can hold some in reserve for when the two teams meet again in the league three days after.
WITHOUT KANE, WHO IS ABLE?
Harry Kane’s ankle injury in the first leg puts the onus on others to come up with the goods for Tottenham. The clean sheet last week was only Spurs’ second in the last 17 encounters against City so the chances are they will need to score at the Etihad.
Lucas Moura fired a hat-trick at the weekend but he is unlikely to find City as accommodating as relegated Huddersfield while Son Heung-min, rested on Saturday, performed well in Kane’s absence earlier in the year and it was he who made the difference in the first leg.
Christian Eriksen has scored just three times since the turn of the year but with possession likely to be at a premium he may be required to make the most of what ball Spurs get.
CAN LIGHTNING STRIKE TWICE FOR AJAX?
Juventus will be confident, with an away goal, of seeing off Ajax, but the Dutch side have already proved they are no respecters of reputations.
They overturned a 2-1 home defeat to beat holders Real Madrid 4-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu and Juve boss Massimiliano Allegri is taking no chances having rested most of his players – Cristiano Ronaldo was given the weekend off – as the runaway Serie A leaders slipped to only their second league defeat at mid-table SPAL.
Ronaldo is the one obvious threat and the omens are not good for Ajax, who despite being unbeaten in their last four matches away to Serie A sides have lost nine of the 12 European ties in which they drew the home first leg, including four European Cup quarter-finals.
Factor in influential midfielder Frenkie De Jong is an injury doubt and Ajax’s hopes of pulling off a second successive shock result look slim.
NO PORTO WALKOVER FOR REDS
It is the forgotten tie of the round. Liverpool’s current form is so good (11 wins and five draws) that their trip to the Estadio do Dragao, where they won 5-0 last year, is seen as a formality.
But, complacency is the one thing which could do for Jurgen Klopp’s side as Porto showed enough potential threat at Anfield to suggest this will be far from comfortable.
Pepe and Hector Herrera return from suspension to strengthen the hosts and if Moussa Marega discovers the shooting boots he left at home last week it could be an uncomfortable night.
Klopp will make minimal changes, most likely at centre-back and in midfield, as he believes in maintaining a consistent rhythm and will not be looking ahead to Sunday’s trip to Cardiff.
That slight advantage makes them favourites to go through to their first semi-final appearance in four years, but they will be wary of another United comeback.
Here’s a look at the talking points for Ernesto Valverde’s side.
BARCELONA LOOK TO HIT HIGHS OF LYON WIN
The first leg was by no means vintage Barcelona, but it didn’t need to be. An away goal and a lead to defend at home was a perfect outcome, especially given the scrappy performance.
Nonetheless, Valverde will expect an improved showing from his players. He gave most of them the weekend off, fielding a much-changed side against Huesca on Saturday, and though that game ended in a surprise draw, with the La Liga title effectively already sewn up the two dropped points matter far less than the potential for injury or fatigue going into Tuesday’s game.
In the last round, they came home after a 0-0 draw in Lyon and duly put the French side to the sword, taking a 2-0 lead into halftime and then blowing their opponents away with a late burst for a 5-1 win. This team knows what it’s capable of; now it’s a matter of delivering.
WILL VALVERDE FLIP THE TABLES ON UNITED?
Equally, however, Valverde must be wary of an improved showing from United. Though recent form has seen Tuesday’s opponents struggle both defensively and to create chances in attack, their 3-1 win in Paris in the previous round to overturn a two-goal deficit from the home leg against Paris Saint-Germain shows that when they’re at their best, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side can be resilient and pounce on whatever opportunity comes their way.
Though it’s the sort of gameplan that draws ire from the diehard Blaugrana faithful, perhaps Valverde will consider handing over some of the initiative to United. Barcelona are deadly themselves on the break – there’s no weapon on the counter quite like Lionel Messi – and United tend to be ponderous and bereft of ideas when in possession.
Barcelona’s own possession-heavy game would suit Solskjaer’s side. Why not flip the tables? After all, it’s United who have to make all the running in this game.
TIME FOR MESSI TO END STREAK
A curious stat that invariably gets trotted out in the Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo debate is the Barcelona talisman’s record in Champions League knockout games.
After failing to score in the first leg Messi has now gone nearly 1000 minutes without scoring a Champions League quarter-final goal, with his last strike coming against PSG in 2013. In that time Barcelona have made it past the quarter-final stage only once, when they won the competition in the 2014/15 season.
Memories of last year’s defeat to Roma will be fresh for everyone in Barcelona, but especially Messi, who produced an uncharacteristically quiet display during the stunning 3-0 defeat in Rome that sent him and his team-mates crashing out despite having won the first leg 4-1 at home.
This time they have the advantage of being at home for the second leg, which should help Messi as well. He’ll want to end his personal barren streak.
Last 1️⃣2️⃣ CL quarter-final appearances:— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) April 10, 2019
1️⃣6️⃣ goals – Cristiano Ronaldo
0️⃣ goals – Lionel Messi
Messi’s last CL quarter-final goal came against PSG in April 2013 pic.twitter.com/sZLRBpqmDA