Ten Hag and Xavi stir sleeping giants at Manchester United and Barcelona

The two superclubs clash in the Europa League play-off first leg at Camp Nou on Thursday

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The last time Manchester United rolled into Barcelona’s Camp Nou, a place in the last four of the Champions League was at stake.

It was the early spring of 2019. In the recent histories of these two superclubs, those heights marked a faraway peak.

Since that tie, won 3-0 on the night by Barcelona and 4-0 on aggregate, Manchester United have not progressed beyond the last 16 of a Champions League; even taking part in club football’s most glamorous event has not been guaranteed.

Barca went on to defend the La Liga crown a few months after dispatching United four seasons ago, but that was, to date, their last Spanish league title. Through almost any lens, the trajectories of both clubs since is decline.

If you chart the journeys over the past 12 years, the fall is pronounced. Then again, almost anything that happened after the 2011 Champions League final, when Barcelona defeated United 3-1 at Wembley might have seemed a disappointment, especially for the winners.

That final is still celebrated as a summit moment of stylish elegance, a showpiece for how Barca, then under Pep Guardiola, set new standards for how the game could be played with a new level of creative organisation.

That United went into half time at 1-1, Wayne Rooney equalising Pedro’s opening goal, was a credit to their tough, renowned competitive impulse.

By the end of that night, after goals from Lionel Messi and David Villa, Alex Ferguson, the United manager, was acknowledging “we were beaten by a fantastic team, the best we have faced”.

Ferguson had the sharpest perspective of all on that: his United were facing Barcelona for the third time in four editions of the Champions League, and had been in three finals in four years. Barcelona’s victory was their third European Cup title in six years.

Guardiola left a year later, Ferguson a year after that and although the Barcelona of Lionel Messi would lift one more European Cup in 2015, the magic was to fade for them as for United.

Put bluntly, Thursday’s first leg of a tie that will filter either Barcelona or United into the next round of the Europa League is a play-off for the right to be among 16 teams in Europe’s second division – Barca plunged there by having failed, for a second year running, to make it out of their Champions League group; United having finished second, on goal difference, in their Europa League group.

But, put positively, Thursday is a genuinely heavyweight tie for much more than just the names and lustre of the clubs involved.

Barcelona train for Man United - in pictures

They both come into it in form, confident of who they are, and of the legacies they represent. Barcelona have won six out of six league matches this year to open up a comfortable lead in the Spanish league table, and overwhelmed Real Madrid in the final of the Super Cup.

United have lost one in nine in the Premier League since the World Cup, are third in the table with a comfortable cushion over fourth-placed Newcastle United and can end a six-year trophy drought later this month in the League Cup final.

The cachet of both clubs remains vividly high. Camp Nou is boasting the biggest average attendance, over 80,000, of any league in Europe, well up on a year ago.

On Friday, when a preliminary deadline is set for interested purchasers of United to make themselves known, several would-be buyers will have indicated enthusiasm, even with a price tag for the club that hovers over $6 billion.

Two young, ambitious coaches are enjoying the ride. Xavi, part of the Barcelona midfield at Wembley in 2011, finds the comparisons with Guardiola that have tracked him through most of his career less burdensome as he nurtures youthful talents – such as Pedri, Gavi and Ronald Araujo – and extends the lease on 34-year-old Robert Lewandowski’s goalscoring excellence.

Erik ten Hag, who worked in parallel with Guardiola at Bayern Munich between 2013 and 2015, is beginning to hear it remarked that, of all the eight managers who have been in charge of United since Ferguson, he looks like the one with the best credentials for a long stay at the helm.

“He has changed the face of the team,” said Xavi of Ten Hag. “It’s been tough, but he’s doing a great job. If you look at United at the beginning of the season and how they are now, he’s turned the situation around. He’s an attacking coach and a model for all of us who like that sort of football.

“I see it as a close tie, intense. We’re both in the best form of our seasons. We want to show we can compete with opponents from the top European level.”

Updated: February 16, 2023, 6:15 AM