Five Barcelona players to watch
Manchester United take on Barcelona at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, for what promises to be a mouthwatering clash in the first leg of our Champions League quarter-final.
With strength in depth in every position, the Spanish visitors will undoubtedly pose a stiff test. United Review, the club's official matchday programme, has taken a closer look at just five of the players that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men will need to be wary of going into this important encounter...
MARC-ANDRE TER STEGEN
Now in his fifth season at the club, Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been a model of consistency for the La Liga champions, with an impressive clean sheet record once again this term.
The 26-year-old faces stiff competition for both club and country, with Netherlands’ stopper Jasper Cillessen his number two at the Nou Camp, while ter Stegen acts as understudy to Manuel Neuer for Germany. Ter Stegen has been playing at the top level since the age of 19, when he broke through at hometown club Borussia Monchengladbach.
He then moved to the Spanish league in 2014 and enjoyed a memorable debut season as Barcelona won the Treble under Luis Enrique.
Confident with the ball at his feet and a considerable presence between the sticks, the no.1 – who has started seven of his side’s eight European ties to date in 2018/19 – could prove a tough barrier for the Reds to breach tonight.
A product of Barça’s La Masia Academy, Gerard Pique moved to United as a teenager, spending four years as a Red between 2004 and 2008 – a stint that included a season on loan with Real Zaragoza. His best season here came in 2007/08, when he made 13 appearances as Sir Alex Ferguson’s side won a Premier League and Champions League double.
While Pique wasn’t part of our victorious line-up in Moscow that season, he did score twice en route to the final – his only goals for the Reds. Later in the same month, Pique would return to the Nou Camp, and he’s now in his 11th term with the club.
A centre-back who combines elegance on the ball with his physical attributes, Pique has won almost every major trophy on offer for club and country.
The last of his 102 Spanish caps came in August last year, after which he stepped down to focus solely on his club career. Although he played in Barça’s Champions League final successes against United in 2009 and 2011, tonight is his first return to his old club. ‘I’m coming back to my second home @ManUtd,’ he tweeted after the draw was made.
Signed from Brazilian side Gremio last July, Arthur has had a very encouraging first season at the Nou Camp, with the young midfielder back in the starting XI in recent games following a three-week absence through injury.
Controlling the midfield through ball retention is Arthur’s primary focus, as he did to fine effect in Barça’s Round of 16 second-leg win over Lyon. Such has been the 22-year-old’s level of performance, comparisons with Barça legend Xavi continue to grow, with the club’s record appearance maker speaking highly of his fellow midfielder.
“He’s one of those who we say has Barça DNA,” said Xavi earlier this season.
“He has all the qualities needed to be a success and if he’s given games, I think we’re looking at a player that can mark an era at Barcelona.” Living up to such expectations will be the next challenge for the club’s new no.8, with the man himself recently admitting it’s been a whirlwind start to life at Barça.
“It’s tough to live all of this, as I’m experiencing a dream,” he said last month.
“I did not expect everything to happen so quickly.”
He’s a record-tying five-time Ballon d’Or winner, who holds the goalscoring record for club and country, and Lionel Messi shows no sign of slowing down, with 42 goals in 39 games so far this season.
The Rosario-born superstar had an inauspicious start in tonight’s competition, however, lining up for Frank Rijkaard’s Barça as they lost 2-0 to Shakhtar Donetsk in the 2004/05 group stage, but his success in the Champions League since then has been nothing short of remarkable: 108 goals, including eight hat-tricks, and four winner’s medals (in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015).
United will need no reminding of his impact in the middle two finals of that quartet – a stunning header to clinch victory against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Reds in Rome, before his magical feet put his side 2-1 up at Wembley two years later.
As with every match he plays in, ‘How to stop Messi’ will be the conundrum facing the opposing defence tonight, with his ability to pick out an assist or key pass just as impressive as his prolific goal return.
An anchor in central midfield, Ivan Rakitic is coming off the back of a brilliant 2018, which saw the 31-year-old win a league and cup double with Barcelona and reach the World Cup final with Croatia.
The midfielder won the Champions League in his debut season at the Nou Camp in 2015, although since then European football’s top prize has been kept under a firm grip by Real Madrid until this season.
Ahead of Wednesday’s fixture, Rakitic spoke of the respect he has for United, having grown up watching Sir Alex Ferguson’s side flourish in domestic and European competition.
“Manchester United were the main team,
“ he said. ”It was United and 19 other teams – and mainly because of Alex Ferguson, the greatest coach maybe in the history of football. I watched David Beckham, the strikers Yorke and Cole. Giggs, Scholes and later Ferdinand, Vidic and van der Sar.”
The Croatian, part of a Barcelona side that completed a miraculous turnaround against Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, admitted that he and his team-mates watched United's incredible comeback at the Parc des Princes in the last round of the competition.
“You have to respect United for this comeback, for scoring three goals in Paris, for the organisation and fight in the team with so many young players and a new coach. We all watched that game at Barça.”