Barcelona took a major step toward dumping Manchester City out of the Champions League at the Round of 16 for the second season running with a 2-1 win at the Etihad. The Premier League champions entered the match with bold declarations that they were now fully ready for the challenge of the Catalans, but the outcome was remarkably similar. Lionel Messi had a penalty saved with almost the last kick of the contest to deny them a chance to again leave the Etihad with a two-goal lead. But, while giving Manuel Pellegrini’s men hope, Barcelona will again head back to the Camp Nou in three weeks time as resounding favorites to move into the quarterfinals, and again leave City still waiting to make a mark on Europe’s grandest stage.
In the opening 45 minutes, the gulf between the teams was even more emphatic than 12 months ago. Luis Suárez, on his first return to England since departing Liverpool, did the damage with two first-half goals. Both embodied the quality of Barcelona’s attack, but also the lack of purpose and coherence of thought in City’s approach. The curious lack of intensity for such a big occasion was at least corrected at the interval, with City, as has far too often been the case, seemingly requiring adversity to kick them into gear.
They had the Etihad crowd revived and Barcelona in discomfort when Sergio Aguero coolly pulled a goal back with just over 20 minutes remaining. Yet, as last year, City’s hopes were undermined by a sending off. Gael Clichy, just five minutes after he played a part in giving City hope, saw his second yellow card to extinguish City’s ambitions for the night and leave them counting on a most improbable victory at the Camp Nou.
Having looked in the first half like the tie would be dead and buried by the end of the evening, Manchester City may have some relief and try the spin the positives. But it cannot paper over the cracks of yet another big European night in which they have failed to back up the massive investment in their squad. It was again a group of individuals, all of whom have substantial Champions League experience, continuing to look a long way from a team capable of truly challenging Europe’s elite.
Some of the passing play of Barcelona was superb, in keeping with the 11 straight wins they put together rather than Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Malaga, but in the first half they must have wished they could play against City every week. Pellegrini, determined not to be as deferential as last year, opted for two men up front. It was not the formation alone that posed the problems, but the way City carried it out. Edin Dzeko was anonymous alongside Aguero up front, Samir Nasri offered nothing like the leg work required out wide and Fernando and James Milner were simply played around in midfield. It all meant that the compactness, essential to stop the Catalans probing passing attack, was sorely missing. It is far from the first time in Pellegrini’s reign that City have been poorly set up when coming up against one of the truly top teams, and if City do drop out of the Champions League back at the Camp Nou, the Chilean’s position will surely come under real jeopardy this summer.
The flaws were all too evident for Barcelona’s goals. First, 16 minutes in, City allowed space for a cross to be delivered for which Vincent Kompany ill-advisedly committed himself, and when Suarez’s flick header came back to him off the Belgian he brilliantly slammed the ball into the far corner of the net before Hart could react. The goal continued Kompany’s poor run of form, but he is now simply being punished more regularly for a rashness in his game that has always been present. It was again in evidence when Barcelona doubled their lead on the half-hour mark. City left a cavernous gap in front of their own box that Kompany charged out to try and fill, leaving him slow to react when Suarez slid in behind him to meet Alba’s cross.
Messi had been hugely involved in the buildup to the goal and the four-time world player of the year was sublime once again. To City’s credit they stemmed his influence and the rhythm of Barcelona by playing with far greater purpose in the second half. After Dzeko missed a glorious chance, Aguero enlivened the tie after feeding onto a fine flick from David Silva and capitalizing on some sloppiness from Javier Mascherano.
Yet Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Alba ended the home side’s realistic hopes of finishing the first leg on level terms. It could have been worse, with Messi being granted the chance to surely put the tie beyond doubt following Pablo Zabaleta’s foul on him in the box. But Hart guessed right and then watched on as Messi headed the rebound wide of the target and buried his head into the turf. It remains, though, City that look likeliest to be on the floor back in Barcelona.