Manchester City’s always far-fetched hopes of completing an unprecedented quadruple were ended on Sunday when they were dumped out of the FA Cup at home by second-tier Wigan Athletic. With the prospect of having to overturn a 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou in order to ensure their possible trophy haul is not reduced to two on Wednesday, there is reason for negativity in the blue half of Manchester. But a look across to their opponents may well raise their spirits.
For, while it was a bad weekend for City, it was a worse and potentially far more consequential one for Barcelona. A 1-0 reversal at Real Valladolid dropped Barcelona four points behind Real Madrid in the Primera Division title race. It is far from an insurmountable deficit, especially with the two sides to meet in less than two weeks. Yet, it was a defeat that felt far for more significant than just the loss of three points.
It was Barcelona’s third loss in their past six league encounters. This most recent one came against a side who were in the relegation zone, yet who deservedly came out on top. Barcelona were abject in almost every department against Valladolid. Their defense continues to be exposed in familiar and fresh ways and with more regularity than before. Meanwhile, while Barcelona had their customary 75 percent possession they did precious little with it. Lionel Messi still doesn’t look quite right, although he is not being aided by those around him. Neymar, who started his Barcelona career so promisingly has been anonymous since his return from injury and the coinciding intense scrutiny and subsequent fallout from his transfer to the club. That unsavory episode has increased the suggestion that it is a club that is losing their identity both on and off the pitch.
There has been much scrutiny of the team’s alteration in playing style under Gerardo “Tata” Martino. While the initial reaction may have been overblown, the coach, despite the incredibly difficult circumstances of both his appointment and his tenure to date, is now rightly under scrutiny. The team was sloppy in possession against Valladolid, resorting more to hopeful long passes than it is hard to remembering them doing in some time.
Martino’s team selections have also been odd at times. Opting for Alex Song and Sergio Busquets in midfield in the defeat to Real Sociedad was hard to comprehend. There is an argument that Cesc Fabregas has been Barcelona’s best player this season, yet he is invariably the first man Martino drags off during games.
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Where Martino did get it right was in the first leg against Manchester City. With Fabregas and Andres Iniesta in the side, Barcelona dictated the play in a way that will have been desired away from home against a side with so many attacking weapons. While Barcelona rarely penetrated before the sending off of Martin Demichelis, Martino was proved correct if his assumption was that City’s flaky defense would eventually crack if forced to be on the back foot for lengthy spells.
There are two ways to look at the first leg from City’s point of view. On the one hand, they largely kept Barcelona at bay until the sending off. Yet, it was not a Barcelona team designed to penetrate. And City’s preoccupation with their opponents negated the strength of their side going forward. This was City’s home leg and against a team that have proven to be far more vulnerable away from home than at the Camp Nou in the Champions League in recent seasons. The tactics set out by Manuel Pellgrini, while in part understandable, seemed to fuel a sense of anxiety in his team together with an inflated deference toward their opponents.
By allowing Barcelona to dictate the game, the former Real Madrid coach was putting a heck of a lot of responsibility on a defense that frankly is not up to scratch for a club of their ambitions. That defense, which has been sorely neglected amid mass strengthening of the squad elsewhere, was exposed once more in defeat to Wigan. Demichelis, who will be suspended at the Camp Nou, made another error to give away a penalty, while there were mistakes aplenty in the concession of Wigan’s second goal. Gael Clichy was one of the players most exposed and it is the left-back berth that provides Pellegrini with perhaps his biggest headache heading to Spain.
With Dani Alves, Barcelona targeted that area at the Etihad. Pellegrini had anticipated such a ploy and doubled up with Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov down the left. When Kolarov was withdrawn following the sending off, Barcelona really prospered and, of course, it was Alves who scored the important second goal late on. City’s predicament means that Pellegrini is unlikely to field both left-backs again in the return leg. The problem is that neither particularly convinces defensively right now. Given that the man likely to play in front of Clichy or Kolarov, David Silva, drifts inside constantly, it could be that Fernandinho or left-sided center-back Joleon Lescott is forced to come across often.
But this is now a match where, as daunting a prospect as it is, City have to focus on what they can do with the ball and transition quickly and effectively when they win it back. The return of Sergio Aguero is a major boost, with the forward’s movement missed in the opening leg. The worry is that City’s blistering attack has slowed down dramatically in recent weeks. Stevan Jovetic remains troubled by injury, Alvaro Negredo is apparently still not right physically, while Edin Dzeko has been an even more frustrating presence than normal of late. City will have to be firing on all cylinders if they are to get a desired result on Wednesday.
Even that may not be enough. For all Barcelona’s problems, the situation in the tie means that Martino should be faced with a simple choice in terms of his game plan. He can play with the same tactics as he did at the Etihad: pack the midfield and control and even stifle the game through possession. It is a chance for Barcelona to fall back on what they know and can do so well. Barcelona are very much vulnerable, but City’s best chance to exploit it may well have come and gone three weeks ago.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 Manchester City (4-1 on aggregate)