The draw probably couldn’t have got any worse for United, but many fans will be able to comfort themselves with the thought that if they’re going to get knocked out of the competition, at least it’s not by one of their hated rivals, with the odds of Barca comprehensively outplaying United fairly strong.
Sir Alex Ferguson came up against the Spanish side in two Champions League finals and United were second best on both occasions. The United teams that lost in Rome and at Wembley were champions of England at the time. This season, they’re playing for third.
In contrast, Barcelona are running away with the league title in Spain and by the time they play United should more or less be crowned champions. Europe has to be the priority for them, having watched Real Madrid lift the trophy for the past three consecutive seasons, and four times in the last five years. Ernesto Valverde will go all out to make sure that they can restore some of their pride.
While Lionel Messi has no chance of catching Cristiano Ronaldo when it comes to goals in the Champions League, he’ll be keen to match him when it comes to medals. The Argentinian has currently won this competition four times to Ronaldo’s five.
Messi scored in both of the previous meetings with United in the finals and will already be rubbing his hands together over the damage he can cause to United’s backline.
Eric Bailly, who got destroyed by Kylian Mbappe in the last round, will likely be nowhere near the starting line-up this time, but Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof and Luke Shaw will have their hands full. That’s before you even get to the rest of the Barcelona’s attacking talent, most notably in Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele.
The only thing that United supporters have to cling on to, and they are doing so desperately, is that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is returning to the Nou Camp 20 years after his injury time goal won United the Champions League. Of course, this time he’s in the dugout, rather than on the pitch wearing his number 20 shirt, but football supporters love to buy in to a bit of superstition.
In Solskjaer United also have a manager who believes that anything is possible, which has aided his team in achieving things you’d never have expected when he was appointed. Jose Mourinho claimed a miracle would be needed for them to finish in the top four, with them sitting 11 points behind fifth place, yet now they are just three points off third.
United also knocked Arsenal and Chelsea out of the FA Cup, having won just three of their last 25 games at Stamford Bridge before Ole oversaw the 2-0 win last month.
Ahead of United’s 3-1 win over PSG in the last round, there weren’t many who fancied United to progress in the competition, and for good reason too. In the entire history of the European Cup, no team had ever gone through after losing the first leg 2-0 at home. 107 failed attempts, then Solskjaer inspired victory with a makeshift team.
Yet ahead of the match, Solskjaer was upbeat about his team’s chances and that belief trickled down in to the players.
“I have to say that we feel invincible,” he said. “We feel that every game we are in with a chance to win. The belief is here now. The players are confident going into the game, even knowing that we are 2-0 down. They know that they are part of a special club that can do something like this. We are not going to go there and lay down. We are going to give it a go.”
Of course, facing Barcelona is a totally different prospect. There are few self-doubts in that team, little history of bottling it on the big occasion, and they will fancy themselves to reach the semi-finals.
Maybe that overconfidence could be their downfall and United will be able to repeat the unimaginable, which is something they have done time and again this season.
Yet at this stage, many United supporters will settle for the players giving a good account of themselves, knowing that the Spanish side are clearly superior. If United are to get knocked out, as you would expect, at least there are still the hopes of ending the season on a high in other competitions.
Sadly, United just aren’t at a stage where they can claim to be good enough to compete with the very best sides in Europe. Yet, on paper, neither were Chelsea in 2012 or Liverpool in 2005, when they both finished fifth in the league, but enjoyed more than their fair share of luck to lift the trophy.
Over the past six years, United supporters have dreamed of playing in Europe’s elite competition and facing the top teams again. This is where they feel as though they belong. So even if it isn’t to be this year, they can spend the next few weeks watching footage of Solskjaer’s last visit to the Nou Camp, buying into the superstition, and looking forward to seeing their side play against the big boys once more.
Full steam ahead Barcelona!