The last time Manchester United and Barcelona met at Washington DC's FedExField for a friendly game, both had just contested the 2011 Uefa Champions League final, Pep Guardiola’s team outclassing Alex Ferguson’s side at Wembley.
The pair were then the best two teams in the world. That Washington friendly, played in front of an astonishing 80,817 sellout crowd, was won by United, which was hardly a consolation.
United had reached three Champions League finals in four years and just won a record 19th English league title, while Guardiola’s Barca was considered – by many of the United players at least – the best club side ever.
In Washington six years ago, the buzz was all about Wesley Sneijder’s imminent arrival at Old Trafford. United, however, were unwilling to shatter their pay structure to land the Dutchman.
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They had also missed out on another target, Alexis Sanchez, with United only prepared to go up to £30 million (Dh143m) for a player who liked the idea of moving to Old Trafford but liked the idea of joining Barcelona just a little bit more.
Ferguson was obsessed by what he considered to be a lack of value in the transfer market and United wouldn’t pay any more than £17 million for a player in the same summer that they bought David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. They were not panic buys: all remain at Old Trafford six years later.
United fans were content, too. They had absolute trust in a manager who kept winning trophies, though the balance had already started to shift away from United as Manchester City won the league the following season. United have not reached a Champions League semi-final since and failed to get out of the group stage in 2011/12. A quarter-final appearance in 2014 was as good as United have experienced in the past six years in Europe’s premier competition, well short of the expected standard for a club which considers themselves to be the biggest in the world.
Barca have continued winning. But, while performing at a much higher level than United, have won only one more Champions League, in 2015. Real Madrid, who could consider themselves one of the three biggest in the world alongside United and Barca, have been the pre-eminent force, with three European Cups in four years.
The global appeal of United and Barca remains. Barca have the world’s best player, Lionel Messi. They have Neymar, Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez. A United side in transition do not have the same star appeal but they have Paul Pogba, the most expensive player in the world. They also have Jose Mourinho. And while expectations remain high, they are considerably lower than six years ago.
Mourinho, who worked at Barcelona as an assistant to Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, is entering his second season in charge at Old Trafford. Barca have changed managers, with Luis Enrique stepping down after a successful three-year spell in charge. He is replaced by the cerebral Ernesto Valverde, who was finally prised away from Athletic Bilbao, which he made into a consistently hard-to-beat team and an entertaining side, despite being restricted to using Basque players.
United’s Ander Herrera maintains that Valverde is the best manager that he has ever worked under.
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Valverde will be pleased that striker Neymar is set to stay at Camp Nou, despite being linked with a move to Paris Saint-Germain. Like Cristiano Ronaldo, after his annual flirtations with rivals, he will likely be rewarded with another pay rise.
United and Barca have met half a dozen times pre-season in the United States since 2003, with United winning more in games where the results don't really matter. This tour has been a positive one for Mourinho and his side, with four wins from four games – though they needed a farcical penalty shoot-out to overcome Real Madrid on Sunday in Santa Clara, California. Barca will play Madrid in over two legs in the Spanish Super Cup on August 12 and 15. United will play Madrid in the Super Cup in Skopje, Macedonia on August 8.
The paths of the biggest three clubs in the world keep crossing, but given United’s status, their appearances should be in competitive matches more often than friendlies.
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