The pre-match billing was that Barcelona were up against it, that the Premier League’s most vicious and visceral attack in Manchester City would be their undoing.
It was added to even further by Jose Mourinho’s comments that this Barcelona team were the worst he’d seen in years. With a different tone and a slight re-wording, he’s not far off. This Barcelona team are no match for what was produced under Pep Guardiola, yet still much, much better than what came before him in Frank Rijkaard’s final season in charge.
It didn’t matter too much to Manuel Pellegrini. Even with an attack that can rival the best across Europe, the Chilean is well versed in taking a defeat from the Catalans, as he had done for much of his time in Spain. His tactics said as much too, with Aleksandar Kolarov reinforcing the left side ahead of Gael Clichy, and for one of the few times this season, deploying only the solitary centre-forward in Alvaro Negredo; David Silva playing off him in an attempt to crowd the midfield.
The mistake was showing far too much respect to Barcelona, even before the game had begun. The team sheet spelled it out, that City would allow Barcelona to play their game and use a lone target man as a foil for launching counterattacks.
The defensive display was admirable for what it was. Martin Demichelis will be remembered for the red card that sent Barcelona on their way, but he should be commended for a very good performance, when most have marked him as City’s weak link for much of the season.
The key in the loss is that Barcelona’s feathers were never ruffled. They never looked uneasy with the occasion. In recent losses and even wins which could have been draws, the opposition got at Barcelona and suffocated them while in possession. Vitally, those teams stuck largely to the principles of wanting to get a win.
Athletic Bilbao, spurred on by a hostile San Mames crowd, got at Barcelona in a way that few have had the courage to over the years. They didn’t do so with negative tactics, deploying ‘destroyers’ in the midfield to stop Barcelona playing. It was a case of beating Tata Martino’s side at their own game. Beating them with the style of football that has become the envy of almost all across Europe.
Bayern Munich did it to devastating effect. Jupp Heynckes never strayed too far from what his go-to plan was or his first-choice XI, and it became evident not just how Barcelona had waned last season – AC Milan and PSG also troubled them in the Champions League prior to the tie with Bayern – but also how good Bayern had become.
Manchester City had chances on Tuesday night, with Negredo in the first half and through a David Silva effort in the second. But most teams have chances against Barcelona, even during the height of their European dominance a few years ago. The problem is they were fleeting chances. They weren’t sustained in a way that really placed doubt in the Barcelona players’ minds. They held possession, created chances when openings were found, and Sergio Busquets, absolutely key, wasn’t pulled out of position and forced forward. There was simply nothing for City to exploit.