Barcelona head coach Xavi has conceded that his side have received the ‘most difficult opponent’ in their Europa League play-off after being drawn with Manchester United.
For a second season running, Xavi has failed to guide Barça through the group stages of the Champions League and will return to Europe’s second-tier competition on the other side of Christmas.
After already facing Bayern Munich and Inter on the continent this term, Barcelona’s life has not been made much easier after being paired with Man Utd in the play-off round – the Red Devils finished second to La Liga side Real Sociedad in the group stage.
Speaking to the media after the draw, Xavi was full of praise for Man Utd and praised their progress under Erik ten Hag, but revealed his annoyance at Barcelona’s apparent lack of luck this season.
“It is the most difficult opponent once again, but we will look forward to it,” he said.
“They are a historic side, they have grown a lot with the arrival of Ten Hag, they have great players. It’s the worst draw we could have got. Once again, no luck.”
Should he remain at the club at the end of the January transfer window, Cristiano Ronaldo could return to face Barcelona for the first time in the post-Lionel Messi era.
Ronaldo has already faced Barça with Man Utd in the past before duelling them with bitter rivals Real Madrid, while he twice featured against them with Juventus, but never without nemesis Messi on their books.
Barcelona club president Joan Laporta has also previously suggested that they chose to sign Robert Lewandowski instead of Ronaldo during the summer window.
Player ratings as Mbappe injury mars routine win
Paris Saint-Germain’s 3-1 win over Montpellier in Ligue 1 on Wednesday night was marred by Kylian Mbappe limping from the field with a suspected hamstring injury.
The Frenchman wandered off down the tunnel after just 21 minutes, which will no doubt concern PSG’s supporters less than two weeks before the Parisians are due to lock horns with Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Mbappe’s absence didn’t affect the result of the game, as Fabian Ruiz, Lionel Messi and Warren Zaire-Emery bagged second half goals for PSG, but the Frenchman did have a rather eventful night despite being on the field for less than a quarter of the game.
After Sergio Ramos was hauled down in the area, Mbappe saw his ninth minute penalty saved by Montpellier goalkeeper Benjamin Lecomte, only for VAR to determine that he’d come off of his line too soon.
But Mbappe missed the second spot kick as well, with Lecomte again denying him, before he sunk to the turf 10 minutes later clutching his hamstring.
Messi had a goal chalked off by VAR for offside before the half-time interval as PSG dominated, and it was deja vu eight minutes after the break when Achraf Hakimi also had an effort ruled out by the officials.
PSG weren’t to be denied though, and they took the lead through Ruiz after some good smart build-up play involving Vitinha, Hakimi and Mbappe’s replacement, Hugo Ekitike.
Spanish midfielder Ruiz then produced a sublime assist for Messi’s goal 15 minutes time, linking up nicely with Ekitike before sliding a perfectly weighted pass through to the Argentine. He, inevitably, did the rest by dinking the ball past the impressive Lecomte.
Montpellier scored in stoppage time to reduce the arrears when PSG could, and should, have been out of sight, and almost levelled the game when the visitors were caught dozing moments later.
Zaire-Emery, aged just 16, sealed the deal to become PSG’s youngest ever goalscorer, but the main worry for Christophe Galtier will be whether Mbappe is fit to face Bayern when the Champions League returns to the Parc des Princes on Valentine’s night.
GK: Gianluigi Donnarumma – 6/10 – Statuesque as Arnaud Nordin pulled a goal back for Montpellier late on. Didn’t have much to do.
RB: Achraf Hakimi – 7/10 – Denied a fantastic goal by the assitant referee’s flag. There are few better full-backs to watch than Hakimi when he’s in full flow.
CB: Marquinhos – 7/10 – Passing accuracy was on point and seemed to be in full control until a late blip almost cost PSG dear.
CB: Sergio Ramos – 6/10 – Was doing pretty well, even winning a penalty, before an unfortunate clash of heads ended the Spaniard’s night.
LB: Nuno Mendes – 6/10 – Still working his way back to full fitness but got a good hour and a bit under his belt.
DM: Danilo Pereira – 6/10 – Slipped into the back four after Sergio Ramos went off injured – a role he’s becoming increasingly familiar with.
RCM: Carlos Soler – 6/10 – A little quiet compared to those around him and was often outduelled.
CM: Vitinha – 7/10 – Again impressive in the heart of midfield, playing a key role in PSG’s opening goal.
LCM: Fabian Ruiz – 8/10 – Was in the right place at the right time to give PSG the lead, and then produced a fantasticly weighted pass for Messi’s goal.
ST: Lionel Messi – 8/10 – Denied by VAR in the first half but showed his class to put the game beyond Montpellier. The lead orchestrator of all things good, as per.
ST: Kylian Mbappe – 4/10 – Missed two penalties and went off injured. Not a night for Mbappe to remember.
SUB: Hugo Ekitike – 7/10 – Gave PSG an outlet up front, and his hard work and endeavour allowed PSG to break the deadlock.
SUB: Renato Sanches – 6/10 – Helped PSG control proceedings after coming on for the injured Ramos.
SUB: Warren Zaire-Emery – 7/10 – Took his goal superbly to become PSG’s youngest ever goalscorer. A real talent.
SUB: Juan Bernat – 6/10 – A steady but unspectacular 20 minutes or so for the former Bayern Munich man.
Player of the Match: Fabian Ruiz (PSG)
Player rating as Red Devils seal passage to Wembley
Manchester United secured their place in only a second major final in six seasons on Wednesday night with a 2-0 victory over Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford.
Goals from Anthony Martial and Fred decided the game, bumping up an already comfortable aggregate lead from the first leg to 5-0, setting up a clash with Newcastle at Wembley this month.
The hosts had mild penalty appeals when Alejandro Garnacho went down under pressure from Neco Williams and Willy Boly. But nearly half an hour had passed before either side had a clear sight of goal, with a powerful Casemiro header saved by Wayne Hennessey’s outstretched right foot.
Despite chasing an aggregate deficit, Forest had seen very little of the ball but probably should have taken the lead on a rare foray forward. A throw-in gave Brennan Johnson the chance to dribble his way through, but the pacey Welshman’s finish straight at Tom Heaton lacked conviction.
Antony’s cleanly hit strike from outside the box in the closing stages of the first half had Hennessey worried as he flew to his left, seeing the ball just rise over the crossbar.
Wout Weghorst then struck the post right before the interval after an otherwise quiet opening 45 minutes from the Dutchman, while Forest winger Emmanuel Dennis had his head in his hands when his goal-bound effort was inadvertently blocked by teammate Sam Surridge.
United had stronger penalty appeals not long into the second half when Weghorst nicked the ball in front of Forest defender Scott McKenna, whose attempt to clear then upended the forward. It was given the VAR treatment but the on-field decision surprisingly stood.
Tempers flared a little around the hour mark, with tackles flying and Alejandro Garnacho involved in an ongoing fracas with Johnson and Williams on Forest’s right flank. The young Argentine forced Hennessey into a good save at the near post in one of his final acts before Ten Hag made a flurry of changes, including the return of Jadon Sancho after more than three months out.
With United already starting to turn the screw, those changes triggered the second half goals. The first went to Martial, capitalising on a rebound after fellow sub Marcus Rashford had seen an attempt blocked following an initial run by the Frenchman.
Sancho was then involved in the second goal not long after, feeding Bruno Fernandes on the right. The United skipper’s exquisite outside-of-the-foot ball to the far post was then put back across the box by Rashford for Fred to score an easy tap-in.
Heaton still had to have his wits about him late on to preserve his clean sheet, throwing a big hand up to parry a powerful drive from Danilo as Forest searched for a very late consolation. With the goal gaping, Surridge skied his own attempt on the rebound.
GK: Tom Heaton – 6/10 – A deserved opportunity but hardly a busy night until a spectacular late save.
RB: Aaron Wan-Bissaka – 7/10 – Took up an interesting position relatively high up the pitch and often tucked inside that made it difficult for Dennis and made space for Antony.
CB: Lisandro Martinez – 7/10 – Commanded every situation.
CB: Raphael Varane – 7/10 – Always composed and in control.
LB: Luke Shaw – 6/10 – Back after illness and can be satisifed with this performance.
CM: Casemiro – 8/10 – Another fine example of the type of performance that has really driven the whole team’s resurgence this season.
CM: Fred – 7/10 – Has been thriving alongside his fellow countryman and could play an awful lot more now that Christian Eriksen is out for a few months.
RM: Antony – 6/10 – Inches away from a great goal and posed a threat early on.
AM: Bruno Fernandes (c) – 8/10 – Put in a star turn, especially after moving to the right in the seconc half. Went close to a goal of his own late on.
LM: Alejandro Garnacho – 7/10 – Becoming more and more at home in this team.
ST: Wout Weghorst – 6/10 – A quiet opening 45 minutes until hitting the post on the stroke of half-time. Probably deserved a penalty after the break.
SUB: Marcus Rashford (62′ for Garnacho) – 7/10
SUB: Jadon Sancho (62′ for Antony) – 7/10
SUB: Anthony Martial (63′ for Weghorst) – 7/10
SUB: Victor Lindelof (80′ for Casemiro) – N/A
SUB: Harry Maguire (80′ for Varane) – N/A
Erik ten Hag – 9/10 – Went with a strong side to avoid any slip-ups, but it was the substitutions and slight tweak in shape as Fernandes moved to the right that made the difference.
GK: Wayne Hennessey – 6/10 – Made a handful of saves to keep it 0-0 for at least a while.
RB: Neco Williams – 7/10 – Had his hands full with Garnacho but ultimately outlasted his imprssive opponent, before switching to the other side.
CB: Scott McKenna – 5/10 – Arguably fortunate not to give away a penalty for a swinging leg that caught Weghorst.
CB: Willy Boly – 6/10 – Stood tall for long periods until the resistance finally broke.
LB: Renan Lodi – 5/10 – Barely touched the ball and had a tough night of defending.
CM: Remo Freuler (c) – 5/10 – Tough night against a very good United midfield.
CM: Orel Mangala – 5/10 – Similar story to Freuler, found it hard going.
RM: Brennan Johnson – 6/10 – Should have done with a great first half chance that he created himself, having already done the hard bit.
AM: Gustavo Scarpa – 6/10 – Had promising moments just as in the first leg.
LM: Emmanuel Dennis – 5/10 – Late replacement for the injured Jesse Lingard and initially struggled to get into the game. Had one decent chance blocked by his own teammate.
ST: Sam Surridge – 5/10 – With little of the ball, frustrations got the better of him when he cleaned out Raphael Varane to pick up a yellow card.
SUB: Alex Mighten (64′ for Johnson) – 5/10
SUB: Danilo (64′ for Freuler) – 6/10
SUB: Serge Aurier (65′ for Lodi) – 5/10
SUB: Oliver Hammond (86′ for Scarpa) – N/A
SUB: Detlef Osong (86′ for Surridge) – N/A
Steve Cooper – 7/10 – Set up his side well and they did admirably to hold out for as long as they did.
Player of the match – Bruno Fernandes (Man Utd)
Jadon Sancho makes long-awaited Man Utd return
Jadon Sancho made his first Man Utd appearance since October as a substitute in the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford.
Sancho last featured in a 1-1 draw against Chelsea just over three months ago, a game that saw him substituted early in the second half on that occasion.
A combination of illness and a loss of form subsequently ruled the £73m winger out of action until the World Cup break. He then didn’t travel with the rest of the remaining United squad for a mid-season training camp in Spain, with manager Erik ten Hag stating he wasn’t fit enough.
The United boss also suggested that Sancho had been struggling mentally. The player was placed on an individual programme to improve his fitness and eventually rejoined his teammates in first-team training two weeks ago. He wasn’t deemed ready to return against Forest in the first leg, but a decision was made earlier this week to include him in the squad for the second leg.
With United already leading 3-0 on aggregate, Ten Hag decided the time was right for Sancho to make his comeback with just under half an hour left to play in the game.
The former Borussia Dortmund star was greeted with ‘Sancho! Sancho! Sancho!’ chants from the Old Trafford crowd and immediately took up a ‘number 10’ role that was slightly different to what United fans have previously seen from him.
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