Manchester and Barcelona have an unusual amount in common this week.
As the British continue to agonise about how to leave the EU, or whether to leave at all, the Catalans are preoccupied with events in Madrid where the leaders of their independence movement are on trial for rebellion.
There are huge differences between Brexit and independence for Catalonia of course, but both raise big questions about identity and democracy, and both are centred on deeply divisive referendums. In addition Manchester voted to stay in the EU, unlike the rest of Lancashire, and Barcelona came out narrowly in favour of remaining part of Spain, unlike the rest of Catalonia.
Football was probably not in the minds of the Manchester voters, although United have always seen themselves as a European club, but it weighed in the balance in Barcelona.
The club has historically been a standard bearer for Catalan identity and resistance to Madrid. But that is not the same as secession. Barcelona fans fly the Catalan flag with pride, but many of them also identify with Spain. The risk of being thrown out of La Liga is a real one – hostility extends well beyond Madrid – and the alternatives are not attractive. So the club has been careful to steer a course between the two factions.
As it happens Barcelona could well be crowned champions of Spain on the same weekend as the Spanish general election, which would scupper plans for parading the trophy through the city. On Saturday they cleared the final big hurdle in their race towards title number 26, beating Atletico Madrid 2-0. An 11-point lead, plus their head-to-head advantage, means they can now focus on Europe, with the added spice of a possible final against Pep Guardiola or maybe a decisive showdown between Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Atletico proved a tough nut to crack, even when reduced to 10 men after Diego Costa’s wild outburst concerning the referee’s mother. At that point Barca had over an hour to win the game, but with Atleti goalkeeper Jan Oblak in superb form they held out till the final five minutes. It took a brilliant curving shot from Luis Suarez to win it, followed by a clinical Messi finish – his 43rd goal in 40 matches.
It has been suggested that Messi is not quite what he was. He drew a blank in all four matches against Real Madrid this season; he has seemed weary in some games. But he still has a special ability to score in match after match: 10 in 12 games a few months back and more ominously 10 in his last six games now.
United’s concern tomorrow will be that he can be more deadly away from home, when he finds extra space. He struck twice against Tottenham in the second half when they were chasing the game, and again when Barcelona beat Sevilla at the end of February.
Barcelona’s late scoring spurts, with Messi and Suarez in tandem, may be the other big concern. Just as against Atletico, they did it in their last away game against Villarreal, scoring in the 90th minute and again three minutes into added time.
That 4-4 draw should give United some encouragement, even though Barcelona put out a weakened side, with Messi, Gerard Piqué and Ivan Rakitic starting on the bench. Two up early on, their defenders lost concentration and Villarreal might have held on for a win but for a late red card.
Marc-André ter Stegen is a good goalkeeper, but was at fault for at least one of those goals, and as ever they are happier going forward than defending. Arguably they have been lucky with red cards for opponents in both their most recent league games. But that ability to up their intensity in the final stages of a match is even more marked in Europe than in the league: eight of their 19 goals in the Champions League have been scored in the last 15 minutes.
In midfield they are less inventive than in the heyday of Xavi and Iniesta, but with the possible return of Arturo Vidal alongside Sergio Busquets they have more edge to their game, as well as the pace and trickery of Malcom and Ousmane Dembélé in reserve.
Dembélé has been preferred by Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde, but still has to receive clearance to play after being out injured. The ferociously determined Malcom could be the bigger threat. Named after Malcolm X, he caught the eye in the group stage against Inter, scoring two minutes after coming on as a substitute. Since then he’s scored against Real Madrid at Camp Nou – always a popular act – and is desperate to prove himself after a good 25 minutes on Saturday. Yet it may be that another Brazilian with an English-sounding name – Arthur – is more suited to Valverde’s plans at Old Trafford.
The disappointment of Barcelona’s shock 3-0 defeat in Rome 12 months ago still haunts them, and Messi in particular. The Champions League is the trophy that really matters, particularly after Real Madrid’s three consecutive triumphs. This is a less devastating Barcelona than United faced in those two finals of 2009 and 2011, but they are a very efficient side with ruthless finishers. United achieved the impossible in the second leg against PSG, they may have to do it again to reach the semi-final.