The minutes felt like hours as referee Damir Skomina consulted VAR on the sidelines of the Parc des Princes. Time seemed to suspend itself as nearly 50,000 fans fell silent in the stadium. Players stood powerless on the field, at the mercy of a group of consulting referees in the VAR box. As Skomina returned to the pitch, he whistled for a penalty. Marcus Rashford stepped up and converted, and the rest has already entered into United history.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United will face off against Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals. The first leg will be held at Old Trafford on April 10 and the second leg will take place at Camp Nou just 6 days after, on the 16th. History and Lionel Messi certainly aren’t on United’s side, but the Red Devils will look to put up a brave showing. The two sides last met in 2011, when Pep’s Barcelona emerged as 3-1 victors against Sir Alex Ferguson’s United at Wembley, crowning the Spanish side as Champions League winners.
United are coming off their miraculous Round of 16-comeback against PSG and will hope to continue their good fortune against the Spanish giants. Luckily for United, they will have their star man, Paul Pogba, back for both legs of the quarterfinals after his first-leg red card against Paris Saint Germain. With Real Madrid’s unexpected early exit, the remaining eight teams will know their chances at taking home the trophy are as good as ever.
Solskjær’s men will have to find a way of stopping Lionel Messi, which over two legs is a near-impossible task. Solskjær could deploy Spaniard Ander Herrera to man-mark the Argentine over the course of the 90 minutes, similar to his performance marking Eden Hazard in a 2017 match against Chelsea, which saw the Belgian completely played out of the game. Nevertheless, there seems to be an aura of destiny surrounding the diminutive number 10 this season.
Barcelona struggled in their away leg against Lyon, leaving the French side a window of opportunity to snatch the tie in the second match. There were a few nervy moments at the Camp Nou until Messi put his stamp on the match. United should look to capitalize on this and establish a lead to take with them to Spain. Barcelona’s defensive posture could also be exploited by United’s rapid attack, especially if Sergi Roberto plays at right back. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could have themselves a field day depending on how Pogba operates in the midfield. As Barcelona’s spectacular 4-4 draw against Villareal shows, their defense is anything but solid. There will be a fair amount of gaps to be exploited but it will be seen whether United’s attack can pick them out.
It remains to be seen whether Pogba can have a big impact on a decisive Champions League fixture. He did it in the World Cup, but it will be interesting to see how he fares against the likes of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitić, and Arthur. The potential of a Arturo Vidal-Pogba matchup could lead to the Frenchman being hounded out of the match just as he was by Marquinhos at Old Trafford.
United’s 2-1 loss at the hands of Wolves show that Ole’s side are far from invincible. A backline of Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Luke Shaw is shaky at best, dangerous at worst. Both teams have massive attacking weaponry but are hindered by topsy-turvy defenses.
Solskjær claims United have nothing to fear when they face Barcelona. Only a fool would say that when they are facing Lionel Messi. Nevertheless, the resilience of United remains to be seen. Ajax’s elimination of Real Madrid serves as a Champions League tell-all: this season, it’s anyone’s to win.
By: Brandon Duran