United seek return to top table

Like AC Milan before them last season, Barcelona are all that is standing in the way of the first ever all-English final in the history of the UEFA Champions League. The Catalans will have their work cut out though against red-hot favourites Manchester United.

These two powerhouses of European football have played 371 matches between them in this competition and meet on Wednesday night at the Camp Nou for what promises to be a semi-final first leg full of attacking football.

The Blaugrana and the Red Devils are the only two teams unbeaten in the Champions League this season, each having eight wins and two draws to their names. In the two knockout rounds, Barcelona eliminated Celtic (3-2, 1-0) and Schalke (1-0, 1-0) while Manchester United knocked out Lyon (1-1, 1-0) and Roma (2-0, 1-0).

On the domestic front however, Barcelona have been much less impressive. They are well behind leaders Real Madrid and have gone five matches without a win. Their last eight matches have produced a mere seven points and they have only scored once in their last three home games. The repeated absences of Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry's troubles adapting to the team and his new position and Lionel Messi's frequent spells out through injury all help explain Barça's relatively poor season, and why Frank Rijkaard's men have little left to play for except Champions League glory.

For the Red Devils on the other hand, things have been plain sailing on the domestic front. Despite being held to a 1-1 draw by Blackburn last weekend, they are three points clear with a superior goal difference of their nearest rivals Chelsea, whom they play at Stamford Bridge on Saturday in yet another mouth-watering clash. Cristiano Ronaldo is having a dream season, and with the hard-running Wayne Rooney alongside him, Manchester United are certainly the team to beat.

It promises to be a battle royal between two teams with identical records in this season's Champions League - 18 goals scored, five conceded - and it may well be that a moment of individual brilliance tips the balance one way or the other. And there will certainly be no shortage of brilliant individuals on display at the Camp Nou.

Key contests
The fact that Barcelona will be without two key players - the injured Ronaldinho and suspended Carles Puyol - may well be decisive, but the Catalans have plenty of strength in depth. One major plus point is the availability of Argentinian prodigy Lionel Messi, who made his comeback from injury in last week's 2-2 draw against Recreativo Huelva. His duel with Portuguese international Cristiano Ronaldo, the competition's seven-goal top scorer (on top of 28 Premier League strikes), could go a long way to deciding who gets through to the final.

The words
"I think that Manchester United are the best English team still in the competition but I am absolutely convinced that they think that Barça are the best of the other three semi-finalists." Johan Cruyff (former Barcelona player and coach)

"I think my team has got something special about them this year. We can't go out to Spain and be negative. On the contrary, we ought to be positive given how we have been playing recently." Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United manager)

Past European meetings

Cup Winners' Cup
Quarter-final 1983-1984
7 March: Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United
21 March: Manchester United 3-0 Barcelona

Final 1990-1991
15 May in Rotterdam: Manchester United 2-1 Barcelona

Champions League
Group stage 1994-1995
19 October: Manchester United 2-2 Barcelona
2 November: Barcelona 4-0 Manchester United

Group stage 1998-1999
16 September: Manchester United 3-3 Barcelona
25 November: Barcelona 3-3 Manchester United