Weblog: The football punter
Barca look a good bet for an Old Trafford victory
TV: BT Sport 2, 8pm Wednesday
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a player when Manchester United last lost three home Champions League ties in a single season, but on Wednesday night he may not be able to prevent the Red Devils matching that unwanted record.
The Norwegian, who played in all three reverses suffered at the hands of Fenerbahce, Juventus and Dortmund in 1996-97, had nothing to do with his current team’s group-stage loss to Juve in the autumn but he looked on helplessly from the Old Trafford technical area as Paris St-Germain taught them the most savage of lessons in the last round.
United, of course, managed to overturn that 2-0 loss in Paris, riding copious amounts of luck to do so. That good fortune is set to run out against arguably the best team in Europe.
Barcelona arrived in Manchester fresh from a sublime 2-0 defeat of their nearest league challengers Atletico Madrid, a result which all but sewed up their tenth La Liga crown in the last 15 years.
Since drawing 0-0 at Lyon in the first leg of their round-of-16 tie, they have played nine, won eight and drawn the other.
Their form is irresistible with goals inevitably flowing from the irrepressible Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Messi has bagged 47 for the season including eight in this competition while Suarez has helped himself to seven in his last nine. They grabbed a goal each for the Blaugrana against Atletico.
Barca are flying with those two in sparkling form, and with United going through their first wobble of note under Solskjaer, the Spanish superpowers certainly merit their short price.
Prospective layers will point to the fact that Barcelona have failed to win any of their last six knockout away legs in this tournament, most recently drawing a blank in Lyon. Ernesto Valverde backed his team to get it right at Camp Nou and they did so spectacularly.
But the bottom line is that they are playing seriously well and simply look a cut above United who, for all the improvements made under their recently-appointed manager, are sixth in the Premier League and were knocked out of the FA Cup at Wolves, one of three defeats in their last four games.
And this isn’t an easy match for Solskjaer to approach. The Norwegian preaches an attacking philosophy but this isn’t the occasion for anything gung-ho or they run the risk of being picked off and beaten out of sight long before they board the plane to Spain.
Memories of their home humiliation at PSG’s hands – the hosts managed just one shot on target and were utterly outclassed – will still be fresh in the memory. That they managed to overturn that 2-0 defeat remains one of the season’s great mysteries.
United have played four home matches in this competition and scored just the one goal, Marouane Fellaini’s winner against Young Boys.
Those four games produced just four goals and this game might not have many either. United won’t want to chance being blown away while Barca, as we’ve seen, will always back themselves at home.
Solskjaer probably won’t be fielding his strongest midfield while defensively they are being exposed regularly. The warning signs are flashing.