Manuel Pellegrini believes Manchester City are better equipped to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona for a place in the Champions League quarterfinals than they were a year ago. The clubs face off in the first leg of their Round-of-16 clash at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, 12 months on from Barcelona’s 4-1 aggregate win at the same stage of last season’s competition. City were beaten 2-0 in their home first leg to all but end their chances of reaching the last eight of Europe’s premier competition for the first time. But their manager is confident that they are far sharper this time around.
“I think that last year was different to this year,” he said, reports the Press Association. “We arrived at this stage of the Champions League after playing 19 games in two months, and I don't think it was our best moment. But I hope this year we will do it after not playing so many games. I think that our team is in a good moment, although we also recognize we are going to be playing against a very strong team.”
City’s squad has been given a boost by the arrival of former Swansea striker Wilfried Bony, who came off the bench to make his debut in a 5-0 win over Newcastle United on Saturday. James Milner has also been passed fit after missing that victory with a knee injury. However, the Premier League champions will go into the match without influential midfielder Yaya Toure. The Ivorian, who was part of the Barcelona team that won the Champions League in 2009, will serve the final game of this three-match suspension for being sent off in a 2-1 home defeat against CSKA Moscow.
That loss left City staring at an early exit from the Champions League, after taking just two points from their first four matches. Instead wins over Bayern Munich and Roma left them still in the hunt to finally make a major mark on the competition and deliver on the unprecedented investment made in the club by their Abu Dhabi owners.
But having finished second in their group, City will once again have to do it the hard way. Pellegrini knows all too well about the difficulty in taking on Barcelona. Since beating the Catalans in March 2008 while in charge of Villarreal, Pellegrini has recorded just two draws and 12 defeats against Barcelona, during spells spent with Villarreal, Real Madrid, Malaga and Manchester City.
While Barcelona may not be the all-conquering force they have been for much of that period, their form has been significantly improved of late from the start of the year. A 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad sparked backroom changes and strong rumors of unrest between coach Luis Enrique and star man Lionel Messi.
But Barcelona then went on an 11-game winning run, before it ended with a 1-0 defeat to Malaga on Saturday, with Messi and Neymar in sensational form and Luis Suarez starting to find his feet. Yet despite all the star talent in the opposition’s ranks, Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri is adamant that this time around his side won’t be overly respectful on the pitch.
“I think we respected them too much [last season] but we weren’t experienced [enough] to compete with a club like this,” he said, reports The Guardian. “They know how to win a Champions League. I think it was too much of a big game. We were not ready. This year is totally different. We know what we are capable of. We will respect them but we won’t be scared.”
Prediction: City cannot afford to be as cautious as at home as they were last season. Much stronger on the front foot, it was always asking a lot of City’s defense to be able to withstand the waves of possession Barcelona were being allowed, and so it proved. Still, that should not mean that Pellegrini reverts to the two-man front line that has seen them badly overrun when coming up against the better teams. If City can keep things tight in midfield, but still give the likes of David Silva and Samir Nasri the chance to get on the ball in attacking positions and utilize the pace of Sergio Aguero and Jesus Navas then they can cause Barcelona’s defense real problems.
But the loss of Toure in midfield will hurt their attacking thrust. And, despite their weekend loss and still being some way short of the Barcelona of old, there is now more of a plan to get the best out of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. It is doubtful that City will be able to shut them out and avoid the concession of an away goal, which could prove key to the tie.
Manchester City 1-1 Barcelona
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST