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Erik ten Hag says Manchester United and FC Barcelona had to press “reset” after challenging periods for giant clubs that are back on track heading into their eye-catching Europa League clash.
Having met in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals, these European heavyweights now find themselves in a knockout play-off to decide whose continental campaign extends beyond February.
Barca dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in their Champions League group behind Bayern Munich and Inter Milan after a summer of wild transfers, despite financial uncertainty.
United stumbled home sixth last season and went straight into the Europa League, where they finished second behind Real Sociedad on goal difference.
But both clubs now look to be back on an upward trajectory and Ten Hag believes this match will be a good yardstick to measure their progress.
“It’s the truth – both clubs are in the Europa League,” the United manager said. “Both clubs have the ambition to be in the Champions League and not even just to be in the Champions League.
“They want to have a real impact in the Champions League, to go along the group stage, after the winter to go in the semi-finals and finals and win even.
“But the reality is, we’re in the Europa League and tells that both clubs needed a reset and I think we are both on a journey and we are both in the right direction.
“So, I think it’s exciting to face each other tomorrow night because it will help both clubs because you know where you are. It’s a good test, you get challenged and from such tests you get better.”
United have made impressive strides under manager Ten Hag, who has overseen a dramatic change in culture and results in a short period of time.
Barcelona head coach Xavi was full of praise of the Dutchman’s work in turning around a difficult situation – respect that was reciprocated by a fellow admirer of the late, great Johan Cruyff.
“I think Barca is also a very difficult club and I think Barcelona is, in this moment, playing in this moment it’s best football in several years,” he said of Xavi, whose side are runaway LaLiga leaders.
“But I think it’s in the mind of and inspiration of Johan Cruyff. You still feel it here.
“You can see if you see the game of Barcelona, you see the way of play and that is the inspiration of Johan Cruyff.”
Antony, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay are absent from Ten Hag’s 21-man squad in Spain due to injury, keeping them out with Christian Eriksen and Donny Van De Beek.
Marcel Sabitzer is suspended but Casemiro is available as his suspension only impacts domestic games, meaning he faces United’s initial summer midfield target on Thursday.
The pursuit of Frenkie De Jong was as protracted as it was well documented, but the Netherlands international ended up staying put rather than linking back up with his former Ajax boss.
“I think we have a class in 2019 that was a team with a lot of fascination,” Ten Hag said.
“He brings a lot of fascination and I think he develops in the years after here in Spain. He became even better. He’s a fantastic player, playing out from the back, he always has time, so it was a pleasure to work with him.”
Asked why De Jong could not be convinced to join United last summer, he said with a laugh: “I don’t know if we (did) want him!
“No, but Frenkie is an incredible player and for every club in the whole world he will strengthen the squad because he has a unique quality.
“If you can get him in your squad, your team will be stronger.”
Lisandro Martinez did join during United’s summer of change and the suspended defender will be missing on Thursday, meaning left-back Luke Shaw could be moved centrally.
“We have many options, I think, in the squad to sort it out,” Ten Hag said.
“We can use Luke as a full-back and as a centre-back. We have seen in the weekend he did both very well.
“But we have in the centre half also very good other options and they also did well. We can choose by game what we prefer.”