Manchester City could have been forgiven for being riddled by nerves at around 7:40 on Tuesday evening. Gazing at Lionel Messi in the tunnel, the briefest of flashbacks to their clash with the Spanish champions two weeks ago must have crept into the mind of some of the Manchester City players. That harrowing defeat was the perfect motivation for Pep Guardiola and his squad, as they produced a magnificent team performance to get some sweet revenge.
Things looked ominous for Manchester City just after 8. As hurtful as conceding the opening goal was, it must be some reassurance that the greatest footballer of all time produced it. Defensive mishaps were guaranteed in this game, but allowing Barcelona to land the first haymaker threw City onto the back foot. That was, however, the last significant say Lionel Messi would have on the game.
Going behind did not send City into a negative defensive spiral. Quite the opposite, in fact, it brought a new energy to their pressing, a fresh spark to their passing and they troubled an unsettled Barcelona defence. Raheem Sterling was unfortunate to be booked for simulation as City pulled the Barcelona back line apart with remarkable ease on numerous occasions. Kevin de Bruyne produced another wonderful attacking midfield display, as the key orchestrator of a free-moving midfield. An equaliser for City seemed inevitable and Ilkay Gundogan did the honours just before the 40 minute mark, tapping in another flowing move from a hideous Barcelona error.
Half time allowed us all to breathe. We caught our breath until the action returned and Manchester City were an even more ferocious animal. The Citizens took the lead – deservedly – from a de Bruyne free kick in the 51st minute and, despite an injury to the unflappable Fernandinho, continued to dominate deep into the second half. A faulty offside trap from Barcelona gave City chances, with Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar only allowed a sniff through the occasional glaring Manchester City mistake – the most notable of which from John Stones.
Gundogan applied the coup de grâce with less than 20 minutes left on the clock, after a bizarre ricochet off of Sergio Aguero. From then on it was a becalmed game until the Etihad Stadium erupted at the final whistle.
Few teams have ever made Sergio Busquets look quite so uncomfortable as he did for much of the second half. Intelligent pressing, superb quick passing and untrackable movement gave one of the calmest and wisest midfielders a torrid night. This could be a turning point in the early months of Guardiola’s Manchester City tenure – such was the brilliance of the performance. A second half display of such quality was hard to imagine after the thrashing they received at the Camp Nou a fortnight ago. Barcelona are seldom outplayed the way they were on Tuesday night and, as much as anything, that shows just what Guardiola is capable of with this Manchester City team.
The harm caused by the first game is long forgotten and, thanks to the genius of Guardiola, Manchester City matched Barcelona over the two legs. Luis Enrique’s side saw some of their weaknesses exposed, just as City’s were at the Camp Nou, but few teams have the nous, discipline or talent to take advantage of those flaws. Consistency is the key for City from here.
Whether you agree with the new seeding system for the Champions League or not, being able to see two of the world’s best teams play twice before we have even reached Christmas is a wonderful gift. We will not see many games of such entertainment and quality as witnessed at the Etihad on Tuesday night. The new seeding system makes games like this all the more likely in the group stage (even if Manchester City would have been in pot two anyway).
So, for once, thank you UEFA for a wonderful night of football.