At least Manchester City made it to the knockout stages. That might be scant consolation for the Etihad faithful, but after two seasons struggling to keep up with the big boys, whatever happens in a fortnight at the Nou Camp – and it’s likely to be a night when City fans mutter “at least we can concentrate on the Premier” – City can claim they have made Champions League progress in 2013-14.
They have a mountain to climb after the first leg of the round of 16 tie. Last season, Milan beat Barca 2-0 in the San Siro, which some heralded as the “fall of the [former] house of Pep”, only for Messi and co. to wallop their old rivals 4-0 to remind everyone they were still capable of moments of genius.
This year, people have been willing to start writing-off Barca, but as La Liga watchers will tell you, they have a better record than at any time under Guardiola at this stage of the campaign, and that’s with Messi missing from action at times.
Barca don’t slip-up in Europe very often. In fact, you have to go back to the 2004-05 and a meeting with Joe Mourinho’s Chelsea for the last time they lost a two-legged tie after winning the first meeting.
Mourinho, of course, has said this is the “worst Barca side in years”. It’s all relative, but they are still way ahead of most of their competitors, City included. There has been no Manchester United-style collapse at the Nou Camp!
What went wrong for City? Manuel Pellegrini played it too cautious and there was little trace of the goal hungry approach they’ve taken in the Premier. They adopted a very defensive stance, suggesting that they are still a little uncertain of their elevated status these days. Given the amount of possession Barca [always] enjoy, they had little choice but to defend, but when they got the chance, they played the ball up to Alvaro Negredo and it almost immediately came bouncing back.
City’s defence was also too clumsy at times, although Vincent Kompany had an excellent game. Martin Demechelis has looked suspect all season and his tackle on Messi that gave Barca their penalty was ill-timed. It could easily have been merely a free-kick, the margin between that and a spot-kick was so very narrow. It’s difficult to see Demechelis surviving the summer churn that will inevitably occur in the sky blue part of Manchester – if nothing else, this game highlighted the need for City to spend some of their incredible wealth on a decent, fleet-footed defender.
Once Barca went ahead, that was it. Chasing around after the “carousel” that is Barca’s passing style, City tired and a late goal from Dani Alves more or less sealed the Catalan’s place in the last eight. City performed honourably, but Barca always had something in the locker – at least, that’s what it felt like.
Less honourable is the uncharacteristic post-match reaction by Pellegrini. Mr Eriksson should have pulled up play just before the penalty, which in itself may not have been given by some officials. But questioning impartiality is not necessary. Pellegrini, like City, is anxious to make a splash in Europe. If they turn this one around, they will certainly do that. Sadly, umbrellas will not be needed at the Nou Camp in a fortnight’s time.