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This Thursday 16 February brings one of the most highly anticipated encounters ever to be played in the Europa League. FC Barcelona meet Manchester United at Spotify Camp Nou in the first leg of a tie that will be concluded a week later on February 23 at Old Trafford. Let's take a closer look at the Red Devils.
Years of disappointment
Manchester United have been English champions a record 20 times. Since the Premier League was created in 1991, they have dominated like never before, their 13 titles being more than twice as many as their nearest challenges, their local rivals Manchester City with six.
But the last few years have seen a slump in fortunes at Old Trafford, probably not coincidentally coinciding with the departure of manager Alex Ferguson, who spent the best part of two decades masterminding the club through its most glittering period ever.
The likes of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho have all taken up the challenge, but since the great Scotsman left, United have failed to add to add to their collection of English titles and have not progressed any further beyond the quarter finals of the Champions League. In the last five seasons, United have failed to win any silverware whatsoever, and that's not a situation that their fans had grown used to.
Former Ajax boss Erik ten Hag was the latest manager enlisted with the task of turning United's fortunes around. Defeats to Brighton and Brentford in the opening two games of this season did not bode well at all, but then things suddenly started to click into place, and just seem to be getting better and better. In fact, they have only lost one of their last 17 games, and that was a very tight contest indeed with league leaders Arsenal, who ended up winning 3-2.
They are within one game of ending their trophy drought, in the Carabao Cup Final against Newcastle United, and they are also still alive in the FA Cup. And after losing at home to Real Sociedad in their opening Europa League fixture, they went on to win all five of their remaining matches, although that still wasn't enough to stop the Basques from holding onto top spot.
They are now third in the Premier League, just two adrift of neighbours Man City, and five behind leaders Arsenal, although the two teams above them do have games in hand.
Most capped internationals
Christian Eriksen (Denmark, 120), Raphaël Varane (France, 93), Casemiro (Brazil, 69), Marcel Sabitzer (Austria, 68), Victor Lindelöf (Sweden, 56), Harry Maguire (England, 53), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal, 53), Marcus Rashford (England, 51), David de Gea (Spain, 45), Scott McTominay (Scotland, 37), Fred (Brazil, 32), Anthony Martial (France, 30), Luke Shaw (England, 28), Phil Jones (England, 27), Jadon Sancho (England, 23)
United added some big names to their roster in the close season, including Real Madrid legend Casemiro, and Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen, as well as a couple of names for the future in Brazilian winger Antony and World Cup winning centre back Lisandro Martínez. During the winter transfer window they added goalkeeping back-up on the form of Jack Butland.
Casemiro and the ubiquitous Marcus Rashford are arguably the two most inspired performers right now. Rashford has 12 goals in the Premier and three in the Europa League while the Brazilian is proving to be an exquisite addition to the midfield. The team's strong forward line coupled with its rapid counter-attacks are going to be just the kind of opposition that Barça are never comfortable playing against.
Of course, one of the biggest talking points of the season has been the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia. There is no disputing what a quality player the Portuguese striker is, but many feel that United have been functioning a lot better without so much of the game focusing on what he can do.
The teams has been knocked by the news that Eriksen is out for the rest of the season, and that's the main reason why they have drafted in the experienced Austrian international Marcel Sabitzer on loan from Bayern Munich until the end of the campaign.
Erik ten Hag was never a big name as a player, best known in his native Holland for his three different spells as a centre back with Twente. His coaching experience amounted to jobs in charge of Go Ahead Eagles, the Bayern Munich reserves and Utrecht, so he was something of a surprise appointment as Ajax manager in 2017.
But Ajax clearly knew what they were doing. He took a record of just 128 games to win his first 100 matches as Ajax manager, and guided the team all the way to the Champions League sem-finals, as well as a number of other achievements that were enough to convince Manchester United that he was the man they needed. And thus far, he is not disappointing.
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