After a stunning comeback win over PSG in the Round of 16, Manchester United will brace themselves for yet another stern test when they welcome FC Barcelona at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
This will be the first leg of this quarterfinal tie-up between these two sides, who have an excellent pedigree when it comes to winning silverware. But, the hosts are definitely the underdogs going into this fixture, and they will need to be resilient if they are to get past this in-form Barcelona side.
Here are three key battles which could decide the outcome of this game.
Chris Smalling vs Luis Suarez
Chris Smalling scored an own goal, which eventually turned out to be decisive in Manchester United’s defeat against Wolves in the last game. However, aside from the own goal, the England international held the fort quite well, and coach Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer will be hoping for a similar performance against Barcelona tonight.
Smalling’s doggedness at the back, coupled with his commitment and excellent aerial prowess will be useful in dealing with the threat of Luis Suarez. The former Liverpool forward will be deployed as the central striker, where he will look to link-up with the likes of Lionel Messi and Coutinho to create chances for his team.
And the onus will be on Smalling to prevent the Uruguayan from having any space and time on the ball. It will also be interesting to see how these two fare against each other after their previous duels in the Premier League.
Paul Pogba vs Ivan Rakitic
It will be an enthralling midfield contest between two of the most gifted technical players in Europe when Paul Pogba locks horns with Ivan Rakitic at Old Trafford.
Man United star Pogba has been in terrific form under Solskjaer, and despite his disappointing performance against Wolves, the Frenchman will play a key role in the half-spaces which the home team will look to exploit. His impeccable control on the ball coupled with his physical prowess will help him ease United’s transition in midfield and bring others into the play.
However, he will have to deal with the highly industrious figure of Rakitic, whose brilliant work-ethic and positioning will help Barcelona in their approach play. The Croatian international is sure to keep tabs on Pogba as well, and it remains to be seen who comes out on top in this epic personal duel between these two talented midfielders.
Romelu Lukaku vs Gerard Pique
Marcus Rashford has been United’s weapon-in-chief under the tutelage of Solskjaer so far, but it will be Romelu Lukaku who could cause real problems for the Barcelona defence.
The Belgian has significantly improved his game since the turn of the year, and his physical prowess and excellent hold-up play in the final third will allow other attackers to make themselves either a passing option or to make clever runs in behind the defence, thus making full use of United’s array of attacking options.
Therefore, it could be imperative for Barcelona to prevent the former Everton forward from making an impact in this crucial first leg. The responsibility could befall upon the club captain Gerard Pique, who will look to use his anticipation and aggression to cut off passes headed towards the imposing figure of Lukaku.