CHRIS WHEELER: Man United have the chance to make a huge statement by beating Barcelona and Newcastle this week… Erik ten Hag’s men must take both opportunities to prove they are the real deal
- Manchester United face both Barcelona and Newcastle over the next six days
- They can end their trophy drought with a win at Wembley over the Magpies
- Ten Hag’s side have a chance to make a big statement by winning both games
By this time next week, we will know if Manchester United remain a work in progress or if they are the real deal.
On Thursday, Erik ten Hag’s side face Barcelona in the Europa League at Old Trafford. On Sunday, it’s Newcastle in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley. Two huge games. Two opportunities for United to make a statement.
Beating Barca would be a bold one indeed. It would be the first time in four attempts going back 15 years that United have overcome the Catalans in Europe, and send Ten Hag’s side into the last 16 as one of the favourites to win the Europa League.
Victory over Newcastle three days later would be no less significant. It is six years since United last lifted a trophy when Jose Mourinho won both these competitions, and the importance of silverware cannot be understated.
It eluded Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, much to his regret, after United lost the Europa League final after an epic penalty shoot-out with Villarreal in 2021.
Erik ten Hag knows his team face a huge week and has called for the fans to back his team
United will become one of the Europa League favourites if they can get past Xavi’s Barcelona
The Red Devils can also end their six-year trophy drought if they beat Newcastle at Wembley
The margins are fine and successful teams find a way to be on the right side of the line more often than not.
There is no question that United are heading in the right direction under Ten Hag. Failure to beat Barcelona or Newcastle would be a bump in the road rather than a dead end.
Equally, he would be absolutely the last person to claim that United are the finished article if they prevail in both games.
But the next few days are huge for Ten Hag, and he knows it. That’s why he was so animated as he headed for the tunnel after Sunday’s 3-0 win over Leicester.
The United boss waved his arms and shouted to the fans when he left the pitch at Old Trafford. So what was he saying? ‘Come Thursday, it’s a big game, make sure you are there. We will beat Barcelona together,’ he explained afterwards.
The galvanising effect Ten Hag has had on United over the last nine months is plain to see. The fans love him and it was no surprise that a statement from the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust on Sunday called on potential new owners of the club to ‘explicitly commit’ to backing the manager. Surely, no-one would be foolish enough to do any different.
Victory over Leicester offered further evidence of just how far United have come under the 53-year-old coach. It wasn’t their best performance of the season by far. Poor enough in the first, in fact, for Ten Hag to describe it as ‘rubbish’ and ‘a mess’ afterwards.
But good teams manage to win when they aren’t playing well, and Ten Hag’s United have learned to do that. They were under the cosh for the first 20 minutes but weathered that storm and went in at the interval a goal up. Of course, it helps when you have gifted individuals like Marcus Rashford on hand to get you out of trouble.
By the time Rashford added a second goal and Jadon Sancho finished off an excellent move for the third, they were on top and heading for their 15th win in a 19-game sequence that has brought only one defeat.
United have forced their way into the title race, but must now prove that they are the real deal
Beyond this week’s cup commitments, United’s emerging presence in the Premier League title race cannot be ignored. They are only three points behind Manchester City and five behind Arsenal now.
First things first, though. United showed enough at the Nou Camp last week to suggest they can finish the job and overcome Barcelona in the second leg.
They would have been favourites to beat Newcastle at Wembley even before goalkeeper Nick Pope was suspended following his sending-off against Liverpool.
The opportunities are there for Ten Hag. Now he has to make sure United take them.