Barcelona will endeavour to move one step closer to Europa League glory when they travel to Eintracht Frankfurt for the first leg of their quarter-final tie on Thursday evening.
The Catalan giants claimed a 2-1 aggregate win over Galatasaray in the last-16, while their hosts just about got over the line against Real Betis over two legs.
Talk about a fortuitous way to win a football match – despite claiming a 2-1 win in the first leg on Real Betis’ turf, Frankfurt were forced into extra time on their own turf as Borja Iglesias levelled proceedings in the 90th minute of the contest.
The late drama was far from over at the Deutsche Bank Park, though, as Betis failed to deal with Filip Kostic’s free kick in the final minute of extra time, and a mix-up between goalkeeper Rui Silva and midfielder Guido Rodriguez led to the latter scoring an own goal to send Frankfurt through.
Having needed a Betis man to turn the ball into his own net for their progression in the Europa League, Oliver Glasner’s side have not rediscovered their attacking touch since then, playing out two goalless draws with RB Leipzig and most recently Greuther Furth in the Bundesliga.
Frankfurt will at least bring a six-game unbeaten run in all competitions into Thursday’s first leg, although their last three have all ended with the spoils shared, and only one of their last seven home matches in all competitions has ended in victory.
On a more positive note, the German outfit are yet to suffer a single defeat in this season’s Europa League as they endeavour to replicate or better their semi-final appearance in the 2018-19 edition, but a rather formidable Catalonian force is standing in their way.
Witnessing one of their own in Inaki Pena thwart them at Camp Nou was not an ideal way to kick off the last-16 against Galatasaray for Barcelona, but Xavi’s side broke the resilience of their Super Lig loanee in Turkey to avoid a disastrous European exit.
The hosts had threatened a shock through Marcao’s header on the 28-minute mark, but Barcelona soon responded through Pedri and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – the former of whom also came up with the goods in his side’s latest La Liga battle.
While the international break threatened to disrupt Barcelona’s momentum after hitting Real Madrid for four without reply, Pedri’s 72nd-minute winner sunk Sevilla at Camp Nou as Xavi’s side continue to stake their claim as the best of the rest.
Usurping Real Madrid at the summit is surely a bridge too far for the Catalans, but the progress they have demonstrated under the tutelage of their former midfield maestro is remarkable, and it is now 13 games unbeaten for Barcelona in all tournaments, with eight of their last nine ending in victory.
Barca have also strung together a five-game winning streak on rival turf while scoring at least two goals on each occasion, so Frankfurt’s attackers could certainly do with taking a leaf out of their book before the two sides lock horns for the very first time.
Frankfurt boast a well-stocked squad for this game, with only Christopher Lenz (calf) and Diant Ramaj (knee) occupying spots in the treatment room after Daichi Kamada shook off a foot scare to play 69 minutes against Greuther Furth.
Rafael Borre was given the green light to start at the weekend after returning from international duty with Colombia, while defender Martin Hinteregger is back from a domestic ban and could demote Makoto Hasebe down to the bench.
Glasner has no players suspended or at risk of suspension for the second leg this week, so it should be as you were for the hosts here, although Sam Lammers and Goncalo Paciencia are options off the bench in the final third amid Frankfurt’s scoreless streak.
Barcelona’s injury list is a lot longer by comparison, and it will likely be too soon for Ansu Fati to make his comeback from a serious hamstring injury, even though he has returned to training with the team.
COVID-positive striker Luuk de Jong is still absent alongside the injured Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti, while Sergino Dest’s hamstring issue leaves Xavi with a tricky situation to solve at right-back. Striker Memphis Depay is a late absentee due to a thigh issue.
Dani Alves is ineligible for the Europa League, so Ronald Araujo may be required in a wide area this week as Eric Garcia and Gerard Pique link up in the heart of the backline.