Dani Alves’ late goal provided Barcelona the cushion of a commanding 2-0 advantage to take back to the Camp Nou after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
After City had concentrated on holding Barcelona in check, their defense crucially switched off early in the second half. Martin Demichelis conceded a penalty and was shown a red card for a foul on Lionel Messi in his desperate attempts to recover. City can certainly have just complaint about the award of a penalty, with the initial contact being outside the box. After going behind City displayed plenty of fighting spirit and even had chances to pull level, but the blow of Alves’ 90th minute strike leaves them with a monumental task to turn the tie around in the second leg.
City may feel hard done by given the contentious penalty award and the positive way in which they responded to going a goal and a man down. Yet their greater intent late on only sought to emphasize just how cautious they were for much of the encounter. Manuel Pellegrini had stated in the buildup that there would be no great alteration to the swashbuckling style that had made them the Premier League’s top scorers this season. With Alvaro Negredo starting alone up front and Aleksandar Kolarov playing in front of Gael Clichy, he did not prove true to his word.
Some mediation of their rampant attacking style could certainly have been anticipated against a side with the ability to dominated like Barcelona, yet City appeared to pay their opponents far too much respect. In Manchester City’s first ever Champions League knockout game, they played like young rookies rather than the experienced, internationally renowned stars that many of their players are. City simply lacked the boldness to expose the vulnerabilities that have been evident in Barcelona’s defense all season.
In contrast, Barcelona will be delighted with their evening’s work. In his first Champions League knockout game, Tata Martino was also cautious, selecting Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Andres Iniesta as one of the forwards in order to increase his side’s control. The strategy worked, although we will never know how they might have coped had City been more proactive.
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There was utter domination of the ball from Barcelona in the opening 15 minutes. City played with complete deference to their opponents by sitting back and simply trying to prevent the waves of passing from infiltrating their penalty area. It was a goal they achieved and they gradually began to lose some of their early anxiety in possession.
The home side’s more direct and physical approach, epitomized by Yaya Toure, was making some inroads too. David Silva found some space to send Alvaro Negredo through, but after holding off the challenge of Gerard Pique and going past goalkeeper Victor Valdes the angle was too tight for a realistic chance to find the target.
Negredo also had a couple of half-chances with his head before the break, but was unable to take advantage. Barcelona, meanwhile tested Joe Hart with a good long-range effort from Xavi, while City were just able to stop Andres Iniesta getting a clean shot on goal after a fine pass from Cesc Fabregas.
While there was a certain element of risk involved, it was clear that City looked better and more comfortable when pushing up and getting in the faces of Barcelona’s players. It was a tactic that appeared it could pay dividends, with Barcelona surrendering the ball on several occasions and giving City the chance to break.
Yet at the start of the second half, City withdrew back into their shell. The edginess returned to the home side’s play at the same time as Barcelona came out with increased purpose. There was a warning for City when Fabregas just failed to take the ball in his stride to go through on goal after a poor pass from Vincent Kompany had left Pablo Zabaleta stranded upfield.
Minutes later, a similar scenario saw City undone. Jesus Navas went down optimistically appealing for a free-kick and from there City never recovered. Demichelis was caught woefully out of position as Messi ran through and received Iniesta’s pass. The former Malaga defender tried in desperation to recover with his aging legs but could only take down the legs of Messi to give the referee no choice but to produce a red card. The award of a penalty was more contentious with the first contact outside, although it may well have continued into the box.
And any grievance City may have had with that decision can largely negated with Barcelona having a goal wiped out when Fabregas appeared to be wrongly adjudged offside before squaring for Gerard Pique to slot into an empty net.
City, though, were ironically much better with 10 men than 11. Sami Nasri added extra quality in the final third after coming on and ended a good move with a shot that Pique blocked to safety. An even clearer chance came with another fine attack leading to a volley by David Silva that Valdes did well to hold onto.
Still, with the extra protection of Kolarov gone on the left, Alves had extra space with which to flourish. Having missed one chance when firing wide of the far post, he made no mistake at the second time of asking. Substitute Neymar helped the ball back into Alves’ path to allow his fellow Brazilian to drive into the box and tuck the ball through the legs of Hart.
It could be seen as another harsh European lesson, but with so much money spent and so much quality and experience at their disposal, City should have long since graduated to seriously challenge Europe’s elite.