Chris Smalling has told Lionel Messi to “bring it on” after the Manchester United defender insisted Barcelona do not scare them.
But Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has warned his players not to concede cheap fouls or risk paying a heavy price against Messi and Barcelona’s other “streetwise” talents.
United face the Spanish champions in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final at Old Trafford on Wednesday night and Smalling, having already faced Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo and Kylian Mbappe of Paris St Germain this season, says he is relishing the chance to lock horns with arguably the greatest player of all time in Messi.
“It’s something to relish, this season I’ve been lucky enough to face Ronaldo, Mbappe, they’re all challenges I relish and the players relish,” Smalling said. “I say bring it on.”
Solskjaer struck a more cautious tone. The United manager hinted that his players had been too cocksure going into the first leg of their Round of 16 tie against PSG, when they lost 2-0 and were schooled by Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and Dani Alves. United staged a dramatic comeback in the second leg to reach the last eight and Solskjaer senses that his players have learnt a lesson.
“I can feel the tension, excitement in training today and yesterday, the players wanting to play,” he said.”The mood before the PSG home game was a little bit diff erentbut we’ve learnt from that PSG game, the players have talked about it – how we got dragged into making fouls. You’ve got to be more patient in tackles, some of these players will have some tricks up their sleeves. They have some streetwise players.”
United have five players who will miss the second leg if booked, although only two of those – full backs Luke Shaw and Ashley Young – are likely to start against Barcelona. Of the other three, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia, only Matic has an outside chance of being fit to feature. Eric Bailly is also out while Marcus Rashford required extra warm up work in training on Tuesday as he races to prove his fitness following an ankle problem.
“It does matter if you go for the ball and don’t get it and get a yellow but Roy Keane was the best example of how to react if you’re going to be out of the next game, what he did in the semi final [against Juventus in 1999].
“How many goals has Messi scored from free-kicks outside the box? We weren’t lucky with the ref against PSG, where they should have had a man sent off [in the first leg] so we hope for some luck there as well.”
“It’s not about one player, everyone has to perform and Paul at his best can run a game like this and you expect him to put his stamp on this,” Solskjaer said. “I expect Chris to defend really well, but Paul’s job is to be the creator, so of course I expect him to perform tomorrow.”
Pogba continues to be linked with Real Madrid but Solskjaer said he expects the Frenchman to still be at Old Trafford next season. “Paul is looking forward to tomorrow, he’s a Man United player, one of our big performers on the big stage, his game against PSG was not his greatest moment but he’s only focused on playing tomorrow and I cannot not see him playing for Man United next season.”
Meanwhile, Alexis Sanchez has returned to full training after a knee ligament injury and is in line to make his return against West Ham United at the weekend, although the Barcelona game will come too soon for the Chile striker.