Barcelona boss Xavi has played down how close Frenkie de Jong came to joining Manchester United last summer and is excited to pit his wits against Erik ten Hag in the Europa League.
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The Red Devils spent months locked in talks with the Catalan club over a potential deal for the Dutch midfielder, though he was thought to be extremely reluctant to leave while there was also a stumbling block relating to deferred wages he was owed.
De Jong will now line up against United on Thursday evening at Camp Nou and Xavi insists the 25-year-old always wanted to stay at Barca – and is now playing some of his best football.
Asked if the match might carry any extra weight for United target De Jong, Xavi replied at his pre-match press conference: ‘I think he was really clear to me: he wanted to stay with us. So there was no doubt.
‘Now he’s our player, I’m really happy and satisfied with his performances, his leadership. He’s in a very good moment, like all the team. I think Frenkie is enjoying on the pitch and this is the most important thing.’
Both teams are in excellent form, with Barcelona unbeaten in 15 games in all competitions and 11 points clear at the top of La Liga, while United have only lost once in 15 matches since the season resumed – and that was away to table-topping Arsenal.
Xavi feels Ten Hag has done a remarkable job in turning United back into challengers again – particularly after finishing sixth last season – and describes the former Ajax manager’s style as a ‘reference point’ he takes inspiration from.
‘It’s going to be a big game. It’s a spectacular knockout round for all neutral football fans. Arguably both teams are arriving in their best form so far this season,’ the Spanish coach continued.
‘I believe that Ten Hag has certainly changed this team. It was difficult at first but now he’s doing an excellent job.
‘They’re a potent team with a physical fortitude, they have a lot of weapons and it’s going to be a difficult tie. I expect a lot of intensity, a lot of rhythm, that’s what you expect from English sides.
‘And this is in a European competition so we want to show that we can play at the highest level and it’s a great game for us. I expect the best.’
He added: ‘For me Ten Hag is a great coach. It wasn’t easy to change the situation in Manchester United. They’re happy again, I think also the way they are playing says a lot.
‘He has a lot of variance in attack, defensively they all work very well – they are a difficult opponent.
‘I think he is a very interesting coach for me, he does things very well, he varies with the three lines, sometimes the pivots play on the outside, a lot of people are incorporated into the attack, he’s very offensive and you see that in pretty much all his matches. He’s a reference point for all of us offensive coaches that love this style of play.’
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