When the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 was made back in December, many fancied that Manchester City had a real chance to finally make a big impression on Europe’s premier competition by gaining revenge for last season’s defeat to Barcelona. Instead, heading into the second leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, their task is an ominous one.
At the time of the balls being pulled out in Nyon, City were riding high after pulling off a great escape from their Champions League group thanks to back-to-back wins over Bayern Munich and at Roma. In the Premier League, meanwhile, they were in the midst of a run that would see them draw level with leaders Chelsea at the turn of the year. Since then, though, very little has gone right at the Etihad.
As well as elimination from the FA Cup by Championship side Middlesbrough, City’s poor Premier League run continued with a disastrous defeat to Burnley on Saturday to fall back to six points behind Chelsea having played a game more. And for much of the first leg of their Round of 16 tie at the Etihad, they were outclassed to an even greater extent by Barcelona than had been the case 12 months earlier. A 2-0 half-time lead given to the visitors by Luis Suárez did nothing to flatter Barcelona. And even after fighting back after the interval and scoring through Sergio Aguero, City could count themselves fortunate to escape with just a 2-1 defeat. Joe Hart’s saving of Lionel Messi’s injury-time penalty, in theory, kept the tie just about alive.
Yet the history of teams coming back from a home first-leg deficit in the Champions League does not bode well for City. Only twice in the 23-year history of the competition has that particular feat been accomplished. And, in truth, as bad as City’s chances are, the prospects of manager Manuel Pellegrini keeping his job beyond this summer do not look much better.
Despite such lavish investment, and a second Premier League title in three years last season, Manchester City still fail to convince as a team capable of truly challenging Europe’s best. Were City to be eliminated on Wednesday, and with their main fight in the Premier League now arguably simply maintaining their place in the top four rather than chasing down Chelsea, Pellegrini’s exit could well be just a matter of confirmation this summer. Yet the Chilean, whose tactics were again widely criticized three weeks ago, has disputed that his job is on the line.
“That’s an external perception, which is totally different to how it’s seen on the inside,” he told The Guardian in an interview this week. “This is an absolutely solid project, carried out the right way. I’ve never felt that if I don’t win I’m out.”
It is not so long ago that Pellegrini’s counterpart on Wednesday was seen as a dead man walking. When the draw for the last 16 was held, Barcelona were still struggling along under new coach Luis Enrique. The task of integrating Suárez alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar, and into a coherent team, appeared too much for a coach whose limited experience has been of mixed success. Indeed the start of January saw his difficulties in managing the club’s star player, Messi, brought into sharp focus. Having left the four-time world player of the year out of the starting lineup for a defeat to Real Sociedad, a power struggle appeared underway for which there would likely be only one winner. And it wouldn’t be the coach.
Instead he has managed to get his stars to click. Messi is in some of the best form of his career, having almost moved back to the position in which he made his breakthrough as a player, coming in from the right flank. His 43 goals already this season have been added to by the threat of Neymar breaking in off the other flank and the unselfish play of Suárez. The Uruguayan’s early struggles now look a distant memory and he has also begun to find the net on a regular basis, scoring six goals in his last five appearances.
Since that defeat to Real Sociedad, Barcelona have won 16 of their 17 matches to move into the final of the Copa del Rey final and a point clear at the top of La Liga. On Sunday, they will put that advantage on the line at the Camp Nou against Real Madrid, in a match that could go a long way to deciding the title.
But it is a contest for which they will start as strong favorites. Not only has the balance of power shifted in Spain in the last three months, but there is a strong argument that Barcelona are now Europe’s most feared team. In contrast to scenario in December, it is very much City that look the vulnerable team now.
Prediction: City will welcome Yaya Toure back from suspension, while Barcelona will be without the injured Sergio Busquets. Yet even that boost, coupled with the prospect of one or two Barcelona minds already turning to the Clasico, is likely to save Pellegrini’s side. Barring a collapse from the Catalans, City lack the nous, composure and resolve to go away and win at a team of the caliber of Barcelona. Even though Enrique still has something to prove that he has the acumen at the very highest level, there were encouraging signs against City in the first leg, and they have enough quality and a healthy enough advantage to avoid real drama back at home.
Barcelona 2-1 Manchester City
Kickoff time: 3:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, ESPN Deportes