Barcelona head coach Xavi is ready to renew his rivalry with Manchester United after the two clubs were paired together in the Europa League knockout round play-offs.
The Reds’ status as group runners-up in the competition, and the Catalan club’s third-placed finish in the Champions League, meant that another meeting between the giants was possible and it was duly confirmed when UEFA’s draw was made just after midday UK time today (Monday).
Barcelona v United was the first and certainly the most eye-catching of the eight ties that were announced in Switzerland, and Xavi was quick to comment on the pairing as he was holding a regular pre-match press conference at the time, for his team’s La Liga game away to Osasuna tomorrow night (Tuesday).
“It’s a massive challenge for us,” said the former Barcelona and Spain midfielder.
“Manchester United are a historic club and they also need to win.
“Our players will probably be more motivated against a strong team and we will have to compete, going to Manchester against a top rival and a historic side that has improved a lot with the arrival of [Erik] ten Hag, with great individual players.
“We are two big teams and it’s going to be a massive tie.”
Xavi marked one year since becoming Barcelona boss on Sunday, 6 November, which also happens to be the anniversary of Sir Alex Ferguson’s appointment as United manager in 1986.
Meanwhile, Erik ten Hag is still in his first season in charge of the Reds and his work here so far has earned the admiration of his counterpart at Camp Nou.
“Ten Hag is doing a fantastic job in Manchester,” said Xavi.
“They have a great group of players. We will have time to analyse it but they are a strong side in defence and in attack. Not just Cristiano Ronaldo, there are other players.”
The name of Ronaldo was inevitably raised at Xavi’s press conference, given Cristiano’s personal history against Barcelona during his time with their arch-rivals Real Madrid.
He faced them 31 times across four competitions as a Real player, scoring 20 goals. He also went on to net against them twice for Juventus, in the group stage of the 2020/21 Champions League.
“He’s a fantastic player,” acknowledged Xavi. “One of the best in the world in recent times, and, of course, he can still make a difference.”
Speaking of history with the Reds, Barcelona’s head coach has plenty of his own, having played against us six times during his illustrious career.
In fact, the creative midfielder made his Champions League debut at Old Trafford, on 16 September 1998, when he came on as a 68th-minute substitute for the brilliant Brazilian forward, Rivaldo. Two minutes later, another future manager of the visitors, Luis Enrique, netted the sixth and final goal of a pulsating group-stage game as the sides drew 3-3.
Xavi played the full 90 minutes in the return match, another 3-3 thriller, before United went on to win the competition at the end of that 1998/99 season – at Barcelona’s Camp Nou of course – to complete an unprecedented Treble.
His landmark night in Manchester was the first of Xavi’s 151 Champions League appearances, a tally which also included four more meetings with United – both legs of the 2008 semi-final and the finals in 2009 and 2011. He played 767 times for Barcelona in total, registering 85 goals and 185 assists, and winning an incredible 27 trophies.