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Clash of Barca and Manchester United underlines soaring revivals
Barcelona host Manchester United Thursday in a match-up which has twice graced the Champions League final but this week has the relative ignominy of taking place in the Europa League play-off round.
The Catalans crashed out of Europe's premier competition at the first hurdle, while Manchester United finished runners up in their Europa League group, leading their paths to cross.
Despite the tie's diminished stature, both fallen giants are on the rise and among the teams in the best form across the continent.
Barcelona and Manchester United are both building under exciting coaches in Erik ten Hag and Xavi Hernandez and aiming to return to Europe's elite imminently.
The teams last met in 2019 when United's harsh decline in the barren decade after Sir Alex Ferguson's reign was in full swing and Barcelona's deep slide was about to begin.
Five-time Champions League winners Barca won the quarter-final clash 4-0 on aggregate, but their only player from their starting line-ups then likely to face United at Camp Nou is goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
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Barcelona have gone through a profound squad renewal since -- with their spending last summer increasing the criticism they received after dropping into the Europa League.
In Robert Lewandowski the Catalans signed a lethal striker, while Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen have established themselves as key elements of Europe's best defence.
Barcelona have conceded just seven goals in La Liga this season, keeping 16 clean sheets from 21 matches, and Xavi's side are unbeaten in 16 games across all competitions.
The coach, who starred for Barcelona in midfield in their 2009 and 2011 Champions League final victories over Ferguson’s Red Devils, is returning his side to their former glory.
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Barcelona beat Real Madrid to win the Spanish Super Cup in January and will face their eternal rivals in the Copa del Rey semi-finals.
Last season he took over in November and led the team from mid-table to a second-place finish. Barcelona have not won La Liga since 2019 but stretched their lead over rivals Real Madrid in the current campaign to 11 points on Sunday.
"It's over a year now since Xavi came and many things have changed, probably also the mentality and the way we defend," said Ter Stegen this week.
"(Xavi) has a plan, maybe it's taken longer than he expected, but you see results step by step. We have a better idea of what to do on the pitch and this is key to success."
Red Devils rising
Manchester United, who signed Real Madrid's defensive midfield lynchpin Casemiro in the summer, along with Ajax duo Antony and Lisandro Martinez, have rapidly improved under coach Erik ten Hag.
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The Dutch coach started work at Old Trafford last summer and after a rocky start, including a 4-0 thrashing by Brentford and a fractious relationship with club legend Cristiano Ronaldo, has turned things around.
The Portuguese forward parted ways with United during the World Cup and Ten Hag's side have only been beaten once in their last 17 matches -- a 3-2 defeat by Premier League leaders Arsenal.
Ten Hag has helped striker Marcus Rashford find his best form, with 13 goals in his last 15 games, and the team has climbed to third in the table.
"The manager's a joy to work with," said Rashford in October, even before his spectacular run of form began.
Ten Hag also guided Manchester United into the EFL Cup final and the FA Cup fifth round, maximising their chances of earning their first silverware since winning the Europa League in 2017.
Bruno Fernandes, who has also recovered his best form, also praised Ten Hag's impact.
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"The idea of the manager is (imprinted) on the team, you can see it," explained the midfielder.
"Confidence was low (before) and that creates uncertainty but obviously I think this season the main thing is the results. You get more confident."
Both Barcelona and Manchester United arrive with high morale but after they butt heads one will be condemned to suffer another bruising European exit, their revival set back.