Manchester City’s European aspirations took another hit last night as they fell short against an impressive Barcelona side, finishing with 10 men for the second consecutive year.
This was a cracking European night from a neutral’s perspective. Barcelona were magnificent and dropped certainly burst the Manchester City bubble which continues to faulter when confronted with European spectacles.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were devastating, Manuel Pellegrini’s starting lineup was controversial, and Gael Clichy killed the rising City fightback.
So, with that in mind, here are five points of discussion from the game…
At half time when City limped off the pitch having been swept away by Barca’s dominance, much criticism was directed at Pellegrini for having the audacity to setup in a 4-4-2 against a perilously difficult opposition midfield.
That approach was a far cry from the corresponding fixture last year, where Alexander Kolarov started in front of Clichy on the left in a defensive minded approach. In fact, this had greater overtones towards their 1-3 defeat to Bayern last year in the group stages, where Pellegrini also ceded the midfield battle for two strikers to no effect.
Despite this, it’s difficult to be overly critical of Pelligrini’s faith in his players – if there was ever a time to be positive, it was in the home leg (although perhaps not having Yaya Toure was a good warning sign to keep it tight).
The key was playing Edin Dzeko instead of Fernandinho, which was a fair assertion given Javier Mascherano’s aerial vulnerability. The only problem being, as is typical when you play two in midfield against Barcelona, your strikers can become increasingly isolated and marginalised as the Catalans absolutely dominate in the middle of the park.
It’s worth pointing out that a 4-4-2 is not the explicable reason for Barca’s dominance. Diego Simeone persisted with a 4-4-2 in six fixtures against Barca last season and never lost. The key, therefore, related to the instructions surrounding that formation, which were poorly implemented, especially in the first half.
The key to Simeone’s successful 4-4-2 against Barca last season was the workrate that he demanded of his strikers – Diego Costa and David Villa. They would drop onto Sergio Busquets and generally cover the midfield so that their actual midfielders (Gabi and Tiago) could concentrate on nullifying Messi outright and shift laterally across the pitch where there was inevitably always space.
City’s pressing for much of the first half was far too slow. Aguero and Dzeko needed to lead from the front, but seemed more aligned to a rugged compact shape that Barca weaved through with ease. Busquets regularly had acres of space in the first half, meaning it truly was the mighty-Barca-passing-midfield-machine versus an overly exposed James Milner and Fernando – City never had a chance.
It would have been acceptable for Aguero and Dzeko to be that offensive if City could have played some long passes over the top for them to run on to. In the end though, by the time Suarez had made it two, City had a temporary in-game mental collapse, and seemed devoid of being able to utilise the attacking weapon they’d riskily traded for midfield vulnerability.
As expected, Barca had control of the midfield which subsequently drew Samir Nasri and David Silva into exceptionally narrow positions to try and help out. In turn, that freed up plenty of space down the flanks for Dani Alves and Jordi Alba who bombed forward in typical fashion. They caused all sorts of problems, feeding Neymar, Messi and Suarez in the final third where they could cause damage.
As a result of Alves’ excursions up the pitch, Dzeko kept drifting towards the vacant space on Barca’s right flank which inadvertently drew him away from the six yard box. City really needed Silva or Clichy in those positions so they could feed Dzeko in more dangerous areas. In the end, Silva and Nasri were sort of wide midfielders and passengers in the centre at the same time, fulfilling neither role properly and offering little creative input into the game.
It was probable that City would come back in the second half with some fight, but it was interesting how Barca lost so much control in the game, particularly in the first ten minutes of the second half. Barca have made a bit of a habit of this in recent times, losing their vice like grip over English teams as games progress. It used to be fairly explainable in the past because they committed to such a draining pressing game off the ball and tired naturally, but Luis Enrique has altered this.
Dzeko should have scored, Aguero did score, Pique made a crucial interception and City looked set to mount a rousing finale…
… Until Clichy’s second yellow effectively killed off any hope of a partisan crowd galvanising City into a stirring last 10 minutes. Instead, Silva was sacrificed for Bacary Sagna to keep it respectably tight, and City sort of tried to play on the break but were completely shackled by their man disadvantage.
That unfortunately laid complete waste to Wilfried Bony’s introduction, with Barca taking over the game, completely rendering the Ivorian unable to make any impact at all. This could have been an almighty introduction for Bony, but Clichy’s idiocy finished the tie with a big 15 minutes still to play. It was an unnecessarily foolish challenge, and followed a shocking cross in the first half which might have materialised into a genuine chance.
City were perhaps unlucky to concede the first goal in the manner that they did, but ultimately were frightfully outclassed for the first half. Perhaps some attention should be placed on psychology and mentality – for those first 45 minutes, they looked a shadow of their usual selves, laden with the ‘curse’ that has beset them in previous European matches…
Vincent Kompany had another (how many times can this keep being said?) night to forget and you have to wonder when the penny will drop for his unquestioned starting place in this team.
With Villareal, Malaga, Real Madrid and Manchester City, Pellegrini’s record versus Barca now reads: P14, W0, D2, L12 which doesn’t bode well for City heading to the Nou Camp. In truth, Barca should have been out of sight by half time and Messi’s penalty should have wrapped the tie up outright.
Instead, there’s a glimmer of hope with a returning Toure. Pellegrini needs to get his team properly prepared if he’s ever going to overturn that dreadful record.