Barcelona are dominating La Liga - but beating Man Utd would show they're truly back where they belong

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Barcelona are top of La Liga by 11 points, and have a chance to reassert themselves on the European stage when they face Manchester United this week.

In April last year, Barcelona sulked off the Camp Nou pitch, the stands around them a sea of white Eintracht Frankfurt shirts. An estimated 30,000 traveling fans had bought tickets for a game that was notionally a Barca home fixture. Instead, a cacophony of noise from the German visitors rung around one of Spain's great footballing cathedrals.

It worked too, as the home team faltered. Eintracht beat Barcelona, 3-2, knocking the favourites to win the Europa League out at the quarter-final stage.

Some called for Xavi to resign that day. When Barcelona were bounced from the Champions League group stage earlier in the season, it was expected that they would go on to win Europe's secondary competition. Anything less would be deemed a failure, and it certainly was.

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Xavi survived, but yet again, Barca have returned to the Europa League - in remarkably similar circumstances, too. They crashed out of the Champions League group stage in dramatic fashion again, and find themselves looking to make amends for past failures.

This time, their first opponent is more formidable than any they faced in last season's competition. The Blaugrana have been drawn against England's in-form team, a resurgent Manchester United.

This is no Eintracht Frankfurt, but this isn't the same Barca, either. And a win over two legs against the Red Devils would show just how far Xavi has taken this team.

Gavi Robert Lewandowski Pedri Barcelona 2022-23

"Matches are always important and even more so in Europe, where we've come from a few seasons without success. It's a good test, no doubt, to see that we can compete in Europe," Xavi said in his pre-match press conference.

Barcelona can claim, with some confidence, to be the best team in Europe this year. They have conceded the fewest goals on the continent, lead La Liga by 11 points, and already have a trophy in their hands after beating Real Madrid to the Supercopa.

New signing Robert Lewandowski is finding the net in typically prolific fashion. Ronald Araujo is starting to deliver on his potential as one of Europe's best young centre-backs, and Frenkie de Jong - a player that perhaps could have been playing for United on Thursday had circumstances been different - has found new lease of life in a Barca shirt.

All of those players, along with midfield dynamos Pedri and Gavi, have combined for Barca to make relatively easy work of their domestic fixtures. Since the World Cup, they have beaten every other Spanish team that is currently in a position to qualify for Europe next season, and Xavi has now won the second-most points after 47 games in Barcelona history.

But for every La Liga victory, there have been European failures that hurt ten times as much. Barca were miserable in the Champions League group stage this year. Although they were victims of some poor VAR decisions, they finished three points behind Inter, who snagged Group C's second spot to advance to the knockout stages. A 3-0 battering at the Camp Nou by Bayern Munich summed up a morbid, and brief, campaign.

Barcelona 2022-23

That is why this fixture is so vital. Barcelona embarrassed themselves on the European stage a few months ago. Now, they have a chance to rebuild their reputation, and perhaps even earn some continental respect.

Barca couldn't ask for a stronger opponent. United have been reborn under Erik Ten Hag, who has the Red Devils playing some wonderful flowing football. It all starts with a revitalised Marcus Rashford, who has rediscovered his blistering, direct best, and has 13 goals in his last 15 appearances.

But Ten Hag's team isn't just about Rashford. Casemiro has re-asserted his claim as one of Europe's best defensive midfielders, while in defence, Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane are forming into a fearsome centre-back partnership.

There are holes in the United side: namely their lack of a striker and dearth of central-midfield options to play alongside Casemiro. Still, it's hard to imagine a trickier matchup for Barca.

A win for the Catalans, then, would mean a lot. Since Neymar left in 2017, the Blaugrana have played second fiddle to Real Madrid on the European stage. Dramatic Champions League exits to Roma and Liverpool when it seemed like the ties were under control, followed by that Eintracht loss, have seen the Blaugrana demoted in the continental hierarchy.

Barcelona haven't appeared in a Champions League final since 2015. They haven't made it past the quarter-finals since 2019 - a string of results simply not good enough for a club of their pedigree.

Madrid, meanwhile, have rolled through Europe. Los Blancos have won five Champions league trophies in the last 10 years, and are the current holders of the European Cup. Despite some sticky league form, they will fancy their chances of beating a struggling Liverpool side in the last 16 of this season's competition. Barca can certainly make the argument that they face the trickier opponent to mark the return of European competition in 2023.

English and Spanish fans have long argued about the relative competitiveness of their leagues. English fans claim that Brighton would finish fourth in La Liga. Spanish fans assert that Real Madrid would trounce the rest of the Premier League.

For that reason, Barcelona's domestic success has been met with skepticism elsewhere on the continent. How can a team that was nearly bankrupt 18 months ago, and is so poorly managed that it has mortgaged its future, be top of La Liga? The assumption is that their dominance says more about the league itself than the quality of Xavi's side.

The only real means of comparison is in European competition. And recent results give La Liga the upper hand. It's an unfair barometer, but it's the best one Europe has. And now, Barca are back in the argument, with a chance to show that the best team in La Liga can better the in-form side in England.

A win here would be huge for Xavi, and important for La Liga, too. It would be both a perception-shifting victory and an assertion of Barcelona's reemergence on the continental scene.

Barcelona have proved that they're back in terms of challenging for La Liga. A win over United would help the argument that they're back among Europe's best too.