CHRIS WHEELER: United and Barcelona handed glamour Europa League draw

CHRIS WHEELER: Man United’s Europa League play-off against Barcelona is two matches Erik ten Hag could do without in a packed schedule… but it will evoke memories of some of the great nights of European football

  • The Europa League draw threw up some enticing encounters for the next round 
  • European giants Barcelona and Manchester United will go head-to-head 
  • The two clubs have had some thrilling encounters when they’ve faced off before 

The Europa League got a sprinkling of stardust yesterday when Manchester United were drawn against Barcelona in the glamour tie of the play-off round.

One of the great match-ups in European football is usually played out on a far bigger stage, but this time they will face off for a place in the last 16 in February.

United paid the price for failing to finish first in their group ahead of Real Sociedad as they were handed arguably the toughest draw when the eight runners-up in the Europa League and eight third-placed teams dropping out of the Champions League went into the pot in Nyon.

Erik ten Hag’s side will have to overcome Barcelona to progress in the Europa League

Barcelona fell into the competition after finishing third in their Champions League group

Erik ten Hag’s side will return to Spain to face Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Thursday February 16 with the second leg at Old Trafford a week later, two extra games Ten Hag can do without in a packed schedule.

The game will evoke memories of some of the great nights of European football, not least Barcelona’s victories over United in the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011 when Pep Guardiola got the better of Sir Alex Ferguson.

‘We are two big teams and it’s going to be a massive tie,’ said Barcelona boss Xavi, who starred in both finals. ‘Our players will probably be more motivated against a strong team.’

Barcelona went out of this competition to eventual winners Eintracht Frankfurt last season, and Xavi added: ‘We have been given the most difficult rival, yet again. We are going to Manchester against a top rival and a historic side that has improved a lot with the arrival of Ten Hag. It’s a massive challenge for us.’

Xavi has described Barcelona being drawn against Manchester United in Europe as ‘the worst’

If Cristiano Ronaldo stays at United beyond January, Xavi will be wary of an old foe who scored 20 goals in 34 games against his club for Real Madrid.

‘He’s a fantastic player. He can still make a difference,’ said Xavi. ‘They are a strong side in defence and in attack. Not just Cristiano.’

United v Barcelona has thrown up some epic occasions. Bryan Robson led a memorable fightback against the Catalans and Diego Maradona in the UEFA Cup-winners’ Cup quarter-finals in 1984 as United won 3-2 on aggregate at Old Trafford. Ferguson lifted the same trophy in 1991 after Mark Hughes’s two goals in the final in Rotterdam secured a 2-1 win.

A United side depleted by the three-foreigner rule suffered a humbling 4-0 defeat in Barcelona in 1994 as they failed to qualify from the Champions League group stage. And on the way to United lifting the European Cup in 1999, there were two 3-3 draws in the group stage before they beat Bayern Munich in the final at the Nou Camp.

Bryan Robson celebrates United’s memorable comeback against Barcelona in 1991

When Ferguson won the Champions League again in 2008, Paul Scholes scored the only goal in the semi-final to knock out Barcelona in what was United’s last win over their rivals.

‘I’d love to play against Barca, it gets the juices flowing,’ said Scholes last week. ‘I think United are capable of beating them.’

The most recent meeting ended in a 4-0 aggregate defeat for United in a 2019 Champions League quarter-final.

Paul Scholes’ goal was the difference when the two sides met at Old Trafford in 2008

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