Man U vs Barcelona

It’s fair to say Barcelona are very happy with life at the moment.

Sitting pretty 11 points clear at the top of La Liga and through to the Spanish Cup final, Ernesto Valverde’s team will be full of confidence when they head to Manchester United for the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday.

Their latest triumph was a hard-earned 2-0 home win  over nearest league challengers Atletico Madrid on Saturday night, which did not come easily but eventually showed exactly why Barca should be feared as they head to Old Trafford.

A magnificent goalkeeping display by Atletico keeper Jan Oblak looked to have earned Atletico a point, but then Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi decided enough was enough.

First, with 85 minutes gone, the Uruguayan striker curled a fizzing low strike into the bottom right corner from 20 yards. And then, not to be outdone, Messi immediately added the second with a superb solo strike which culminated with a mesmerisingly calm finish.

The bad news for Manchester United is that Suarez and Messi have both been producing those heroics on a regular basis – in fact, they had done so just four days earlier, rescuing a point at Villarreal with a pair of late strikes as Messi crashed home a free-kick and Suarez netted a spectacular volley.

Between them, they have scored 14 goals in the last six games (10 for Messi, four for Suarez), with Messi taking his tally for the season to 43 goals in 40 games (he also has 17 assists).

Many observers believe this could so far be Messi’s best season yet, and the only real justification for thinking he might be ‘in decline’ is if you haven’t actually watched him play.

Messi and Suarez work brilliantly together, but they are by no means Barca’s only threat: Messi’s other favourite partner in crime is full-back Jordi Alba, a master of making well-timed darts into the box onto Messi’s precise throughballs.

The big question is who will join them in attack. Saturday’s starter was former Liverpool man Philippe Coutinho, who became a victim of one of Oblak’s great saves.

But Coutinho has struggled for much of the season and would certainly be replaced by Ousmane Dembele if the rapid Frenchman was fit – which he might just be on Wednesday night.

Another option open to Valverde is fielding a 4-4-2 formation with the midfield bolstered by veteran Chilean warhorse Arturo Vidal, who was suspended for Saturday’s meeting with Atletico but has often been selected for big games this season.

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