One wonders when it truly dawned on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the task that his Manchester United side will face on Wednesday night. Maybe it was after 86 minutes of watching Barcelona play Atletico Madrid. Up until then, with the scoreline level, the Norwegian appeared to have enjoyed himself, all chronicled through Mike Phelan’s Twitter feed. In the space of two minutes, though, his mood likely changed.
Firstly, Luis Suarez broke the deadlock with a right-footed strike from 20 yards. Then, seconds later, Lionel Messi pulled off a trademark dribble and finish. The thought of those two against Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young has surely given Solskjaer some sleepless nights since his trip to Camp Nou. But for all the obvious brilliance of Messi and Suarez there is another player who could feasibly do just as much damage to Man Utd.
As arguably the most revered full-back in the sport right now, Jordi Alba hardly operates in obscurity, but nonetheless, he doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. There are few as important to Barcelona’s general play as he is. Without Alba, the Catalans would lose their structural integrity as a team.
Indeed, without Alba they would be grossly unbalanced. Barcelona have been able to survive without Neymar due to the energy and lung-busting running of Alba. He is an entire left wing in just one player. He is both a full-back, a winger and an out-and-out attacker. It’s not uncommon for the 30-year-old to be Barca’s furthest forward player having started off a move as their furthest back.
Then there’s his understanding with Messi, which seems almost telepathic at times.
The two players operate on the same wavelength, with Alba the teammate to have assisted Messi more than any other this season. They find angles with the ball that others wouldn’t have the vision to see with their eyes.
Up against a Man Utd side that has a real weakness on the right side of defence, Alba could do some real damage on Wednesday night. Young is notorious for being caught out of position, too high up the pitch for a player in his position. He is, after all, a winger by trade. This is something that could be brutally exposed by Alba.
Stopping Alba must be a priority for United, but on the basis of their defensive personnel it’s difficult to see how they can possibly do that. Solskjaer could demand that Young stays back, limiting the space for Barcelona to exploit in behind, but that would restrict Man Utd’s potency on the counter attack. The tactical balance will be a tough one to strike.
Diogo Dalot might be inexperienced, with the Portuguese having only just turned 20, but his defensive adequacy could make him a better option than Young to take on Barcelona. Young just can’t be counted on when faced with opposition wide men willing to take him on. Too often it results in the 33-year-old losing his composure and his cool – see his recent sending off against Wolves.
Solskjaer might just have to hope that Alba has an off night, which doesn’t happen very often. Only Messi himself has made more assists than Alba for Barcelona this season, with the left back averaging just as many key passes per game as Suarez. He is an attacking hub and is crucial to the way Valverde opens up space for players, like Messi and Suarez, who would otherwise be man-marked by every team they faced.
Barcelona have so many players to hurt Manchester United. They could rest both Messi and Suarez and still have enough firepower to get past Solskjaer’s side. But Alba is one player the Catalans can’t do without. He is built into the very structure of Barca as a team. And he too can do significant damage, particularly to a side like United.