Beating Barcelona is never an easy task, but then Manchester United have overcome difficulties on the road to facing them in the first place.
A 1-0 deficit from the first leg last week isn’t insurmountable by any means, and — given how United have played at times under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — overcoming it to reach the Champions League semi-finals seems quite possible.
Here are three keys to victory against the La Liga leaders.
Attack is the best defence
Barcelona used to be a powerhouse in attack and a tight ship in defence. No longer.
In their La Liga games this season, the Catalan club have conceded chances worth an average 1.17 expected goals per game. If you were to have a league table based on this statistic, Barca would only be in the upper midtable.
Opponents don’t often manage to get to the final third against Barcelona, but when they do, they tend to get a shot away.
If a team has a spell of possession that reaches the final third against the La Liga leaders, they get a shot away 20 per cent of the time, one of the leakiest rates in Spain. For reference, the top side in La Liga for this metric is Getafe, whose opponents only get a shot on 14 per cent of the times they reach the final third.
Attack is certainly where United’s talents lie too, although that’s mainly when they have the chance to counter-attack. But pinning Barcelona back stops them from working their magic close to goal and, after all, United need to find at least one goal from somewhere.
Stop Lionel Messi
While this may be both obvious and very difficult, it’s worth looking at the effect it has on Barcelona.
Messi has scored 43 goals and got 17 assists in all competitions this season. He’s scored in 15 of the 22 games he’s appeared in since the start of February. He is, in case there was any doubt, really good.
However, United managed to limit him almost completely in the first leg. He had just one shot, and even that was direct from a free-kick. He may have set up the goal through his cross to Luis Suarez, but that was the only chance he set up. He was only successful in two of his five take-on attempts. It seems like a combination of Diogo Dalot, Luke Shaw, and Fred did a number on him.
There are more facets to Barcelona’s attack, but they’ve become increasingly reliant on the Argentinian over the years. He’s scored nearly 41 per cent of their league goals this year — add his assists in too and it’s over 55 per cent that he’s been involved with. Last season he was directly involved in 46 per cent of Barca’s league goals and the season before it was 40 per cent.
Stop Messi, and you stop over half of Barcelona’s attack. United have managed it once before, they can do it again.
Take every chance that comes
Taking chances is a mix of skill and luck. Take Barcelona’s goal in the first leg. There was skill involved to get to that position, but if Suarez’s header hadn’t deflected off Luke Shaw then the tie might still be at 0-0.
In the second leg against-the-odds comeback against PSG, United scored three from five shots, and the two that didn’t go in led to two of the goals anyway.
Solskjaer’s spoken about this in the build-up to the match too.
“We had a couple of decent chances [in the first leg] but when you can’t work the goalkeeper you can’t score,” he said. “We know we’ll create chances, we have a goal threat, it’s about taking a deep breath and taking those chances.”
It all sounds so simple on paper. But United have done it before, and they can do it again.
*odds subject to change
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by Tom Bodell