Europa League knock-out round playoffs, 1st leg: Barcelona v Manchester United, Camp Nou, 5.45 – Live Virgin Media Two
Barcelona. Manchester United. A packed Camp Nou. A Thursday night. Oh, that. Erik ten Hag described this Europa League playoff as the clubs’ “reality” right now but insisted that they are on their way back to a better place, with both teams needing a “reset” and this meeting now offering a measure of their recent revival.
The United manager has also admitted that he does not know why he was unable to convince Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong to move to Old Trafford in the summer.
“It’s good [to meet],” the United manager said. “We both have the ambition to be in the Champions League and not just be there but really [have an] impact on the competition – get out the group, reach the semi-finals, the final, even win it. But the reality is that we are here.
“That tells you that both clubs need a reset. We are both going in the right direction and it is exciting to face each other because it will help us. You know where you are. It is a good test and from this test we can get better.”
According to Luke Shaw, United were “nowhere near where we should have been” at the start of the season but they have now won 12 and lost just one of their last 15 games.
Barcelona are also rebuilding and have won 14 and drawn one in the same period. This game has been seen in Catalonia as a test of how good Barcelona really are and Shaw, who said he did not yet know if he might play at centre back, insisted the same was true for United.
“We have learnt and grown, and that is showing in our performances,” he said. “This is a big game and it will show us where we are.”
They have done so without their prime target in the summer, after De Jong resisted United’s overtures – and Barcelona’s attempts to make him leave. He has since become a fundamental to the improvement at the Camp Nou. Asked why he was unable to convince his countryman to join him, Ten Hag smiled and replied: “I don’t know.”
He said: “Frenkie de Jong is an incredible player and he would strengthen any club in the world. He has a quality that means that any team would be better with him. He is a fantastic player, he can play out from the back, he always has time. It was a pleasure to work with him [at Ajax].”
Though De Jong could not be persuaded, Casemiro could, and Shaw said that the Brazilian gives the defence a sense of security that has been central to their improvement.
“It has been quite obvious how important he is to us [by what happens] when he doesn’t play,” he said. “For us defenders, it gives us the feeling that there is security: his positioning, where he always is, he loves to win the ball and tackle.
“We say to him that he likes to give the ball away just so he can go and win it back again. He is extremely important and I am happy to have him back because he has been a big miss for us.” – Guardian