Sergio Aguero’s penalty miss ended Manchester City’s hopes of a dramatic fight back as Barcelona beat them for a second successive season to secure a place in the Champions League quarterfinals. Just like the first leg in Manchester, City were thoroughly outclassed by Barcelona in the opening half. But again the Catalans’ dominance failed to be reflected on the score sheet, and with just Ivan Rakitic’s goal to show for their efforts, City remained theoretically in the tie.
Once more Manuel Pellegrini’s men improved after the break and applied pressure to their opponents. Yet where as three weeks ago, Lionel Messi’s late saved penalty had kept the tie alive, this time the same outcome from his compatriot’s spot kick with 12 minutes remaining effectively killed it.
There will be a pronounced sense of “what if” for City after their 3-1 aggregate defeat, yet there can be no doubt that the best team had progressed. While City had missed a penalty, Barcelona had squandered a deluge of chances. The score line would have been far more emphatic were it not for a performance of a lifetime from Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart. Time and again he denied Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez when a goal looked a certain outcome.
It was their profligacy that was the only negative on a performance by Barcelona that was often breathtaking. While, more direct and lacking quite the same control, it would be jumping the gun to say that Barcelona are back at the same level as when they dominated Europe under Pep Guardiola, Messi is now undoubtedly back at his brilliant best. The four-time world player of the year put on a master class in the first half in particular on Wednesday to leave City in a daze.
Playing from the right-sided position where he first made his breakthrough, Messi is now part of a forward trio that may well be the best the world has ever seen. It is the Argentinean’s star, however, that still shines brightest. Multiple City players were embarrassed by nutmegs in the first 45 minutes, perhaps helping to explain why no one got near him when he delivered a sensational assist for the game’s only goal. Cutting in from the touchline, City seemed to think they had Messi under control with players behind the ball. Instead he simply stepped inside on his majestic left foot and curled a pass across the pitch and right onto the chest of Rakitic. The quality of the assist means it won’t get much of the attention, but the Croatian’s finish over Hart was impressively delicate.
From there it appeared that Barcelona might go onto inflict a truly humiliating defeat on the visitors. Barcelona were running wild, and there was the sense they would be too much for almost any other team in the world. Yet City worryingly remain a long way short of having the nous and resolve to halt a team of Barcelona’s quality. Neymar had hit the post and seen the ball roll agonizingly along the goal line before Suarez struck the same upright when chipping over Hart. Such was the exalted level at which they were operating and the ease at which they were finding space both in front and in behind the City defense, there was almost a sense that simply putting the ball into the net was too prosaic for Barcelona.
There were plenty more chances to put the tie to bed after the interval, with Alba early on hitting Hart from an almost carbon-copy pass from Messi to the one that set up Rakitic. Increasingly it was the performance of England’s stopper that was keeping City’s feint hopes alive. Messi got through with a 44th goal of his season in his sights, only for Hart to stand up well and deny him. Meanwhile, Neymar and Suarez continued to lack a clinical touch.
That profligacy might have been punished. After substitute Jesus Navas failed to pick out a teammate from an ideal position in the box, City just failed to force the ball home in a goal-mouth scramble. Had they drawn level on the night and just one goal behind on aggregate with more than 10 minutes remaining, it is conceivable that Barcelona might have panicked. Thanks to a poorly directed penalty and a diving save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, we will never know. But what is without doubt is that Barcelona remain on a different level to Manchester City and, with Messi in this form, they will take some stopping in this season’s Champions League.