How to approach the Nou Camp experience
Manchester United legend Denis Irwin is confident Erik ten Hag’s players will be inspired and not intimidated by facing Barcelona at the iconic Camp Nou this week.
Despite their Champions League elimination earlier this season, Barcelona are one of the most in-form teams in Europe right now as they enjoy a 16-match unbeaten run across all competitions. Of course, United are also flying under Ten Hag and Thursday’s game really is a clash of the titans.
When the draw was made in late 2022, Irwin admits “I would have preferred someone easier,” but he is quick to point out the Reds will not fear anybody in light of our incredible progress this season.
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“I think it is the most difficult tie to come out that we could have faced, but that’s football and we’ve got to deal with it,” says United hero Irwin. “Barcelona are flying in their own league, they’ll be deeply disappointed that they’ve dropped out of the Champions League. But what a match to look forward to. They are one of the big boys in Europe, I think the whole world will be watching.
“I’m really looking forward to this. And it gives us the opportunity again to see where we are in terms of how far we’ve come. I’ve played at the Nou Camp and I’ve played against Barcelona here at Old Trafford a couple times and they are fantastic occasions. Great matches, great to be involved in – you want to play against the top level and this is it.”
Irwin played three matches at the Nou Camp during his illustrious United career: a chastening 3-0 defeat in 1994, a classic 3-3 draw in 1998 and, of course, the Champions League final in 1999.
“I don’t think it’s intimidating,” he says. “It’s not one of them that’s the hotbed of football in terms of going there and being intimidated like you can be when you go to places like Greece and Turkey where certainly the atmosphere is tough. As a player you should love those kind of occasions.
“To go to the Nou Camp, with the history around that, it’s such a big pitch, it’s a fantastic place to go and play I’ve got to say that. Our players will be really looking forward to that.
“I’ve had some terrible moments at the Nou Camp. We got beat 3-0 in 1993/94 where we got hamstrung with the foreigner rule. Obviously in 98/99 we drew 3-3 in a fantastic game against a really good Barcelona side and, yeah, it’s just a great place to go and play, it really is.”
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Reflecting on the thrilling 3-3 draw in ’98, which remains one of our most entertaining European nights of all time, Irwin laughs about how gung-ho United were that season.
“We were such an attacking side at that time,” he recalls. “They obviously had great players; Figo and Rivaldo and Zenden and Xavi. They had some great players going forward so it was always really that kind of game. I think the one moment that sticks out, the one big moment, is the Coley goal, when he went over the ball, Yorkey played it back to him. That was probably it. Yorkey scored some great goals as well, and to-ing and fro-ing, going behind, getting ahead a couple of times.
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“It was a great game to be involved in. Not as a defender, I’ve got to say that! The way we played sometimes you could argue that we were too open, but we came back and drew 3-3 here as well so it just shows you what we were all about in those days. In fact the whole group-stage was mad because we scored, I think 11, against Brondby and another three against Bayern in the six games, if you can total that up. That was the way we played but going back to Barcelona, that game was fantastic, and we had the two boys up front, Coley and Yorkey, they played really well in that game.”
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Barcelona head coach Xavi was in the opposition line-up on that famous night in 1998 and Irwin has great respect for the ex-midfielder. “A fantastic player,” says the Irishman of the Spaniard.
“Obviously a very, very tidy footballer, as all players who play in that area for Barcelona tend to be. He had got plenty of attacking players in front of him in Zenden and Figo and Rivaldo, so that will helped him an awful lot, but – listen it’s always a difficult place to play. We always seem to have problems with Spanish teams, but it’s such a big game and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Barcelona v United kicks off at 17:45 GMT on Thursday.