Lionel Messi grabbed the vital opening goal to calm the nerves inside the Camp Nou and send Barcelona past Manchester City and into the last eight of the Champions League. Late goals from Vincent Kompany and Dani Alves were then immaterial, as Barcelona triumphed 4-1 on aggregate.
Manchester City played the way that they arguably should have done in the home tie and their greater proactivity gave Barcelona plenty to think about. But, despite getting the benefit of two major refereeing decisions in the early going, missed chances and inept defending cost them any chance of a famous turnaround from their 2-0 deficit.
After Martin Demichelis made the crucial error to turn the tie in Barcelona’s favor three weeks ago, his replacement Joleon Lescott fared even worse in the return leg. Anxious throughout, Lescott had already been let off by the referee and the post before his latest blunder allowed Messi in to score midway through the second half and leave City in a position from which there would be no recovery.
They should have had a chance to get an earlier goal back, but referee Stephane Lannoy continued his inept performance by failing to award a penalty for Gerard Pique’s blatant foul on Edin Dzeko. Pablo Zabaleta’s frustration boiled over to earn a second yellow. By the time Vincent Kompany’s late close-range finish arrived it was never going to prove anything more than a consolation and Dani Alves ensured that the home side had the last word in injury time.
Despite Pellegrini’s rant at the referee following the first leg, which meant he was suspended from the sidelines, officiating was not the reason City’s possible trophy count has now been cut from four to two in the pace of four days. To their credit, unlike at the Etihad, City played like they belonged on the big stage. Yet, given the incredible investment in their squad in recent years to take them to this rarified air, the failure to strengthen the center of their defense has once more been crudely exposed.
Had they done so, things might well have been different. City’s pressure meant Barcelona were unable to dictate the tempo as they did first time around. But there were signs that, following their limp defeat to Real Valladolid at the weekend, Barcelona are, in the words of Javier Mascherano, not yet “dead and buried.” In Particular, an under pressure Gerardo “Tata” Martino will be pleased with the increased threat his side showed in the final third.
Andres Iniesta was a significant part of that improvement. His return to the side saw Neymar moved into an unfamiliar position out on the right, but it was a decision that had its merits with the Brazilian going up against Aleksandar Kolarov. It was that battle that brought Barcelona’s best chance of the opening half when Neymar twice embarrassed the City left back in one move before seeing his low shot just helped wide of the near post by Joe Hart.
By that point, City had already twice been let off the hook. From the off, City’s decision to establish a higher line was always going to mean chances were a far more common occurrence than at the Etihad. Unsurprisingly the visitor’s defense looked vulnerable.
Having already escaped a booking for dragging back Messi, Lescott then took the Argentine down with a late challenge in the box that left a sense of bewilderment that a penalty had not been awarded. And City were again handed a reprieve when their attempt to push their defensive line up was exposed. Jordi Alba timed his run perfectly to get in behind before squaring for Neymar to roll into an unguarded net but an offside flag had erroneously been raised.
Going forward City were hamstrung by Sergio Aguero’s hamstring in the opening half, with the Argentine a passenger before being taken off at the break. Yet, their measured positivity still caused Barcelona problems. Given a role behind the striker, David Silva was influential and his fabulous back-heel set up Samir Nasri for a chance that he will still be ruing that he struck tamely straight at Victor Valdes.
Dzeko’s introduction for Aguero gave City a far greater weapon up front in the second half, but Lescott continued to threaten to undermine their chances. The England international’s careless giveaway saw Messi played in behind before cutting inside the beleaguered defender with ease and only having his measured finish denied by the foot of the post.
Having been given the rub of the green, it was imperative that City took their chances. Instead, shortly after Zabaleta has snatched at an opportunity on his left foot, Barcelona struck an opening goal that was always likely to be vital. Cesc Fabregas’s pass should have been comfortably intercepted by Lescott, instead he haplessly bundled the ball behind him and Messi pounced with a cool finish with the outside of his left foot.
Had they rightly been awarded a penalty with 12 minutes on the clock, City might yet have caused more flutters around the Camp Nou. But further poor officiating and Zabaleta’s subsequent dissent ended their hopes. While the impressive Kompany volleyed home from close range following a corner, Iniesta showed his class to roll the ball back for Alves to strike in and allow Barcelona to progress with a win on the night.