In a hard fought first leg at Etihad Stadium Barcelona ran out deserved winners over a Manchester City side that finished the match with 10 men. Both goals were scored with the hosts shorthanded with Lionel Messi converting a penalty kick and Dani Alves adding a goal in the dying moments of the game.
Shots on Target
Gerardo Martino fielded a lineup similar to the one that did what was necessary at Anoeta to secure Barcelona's advance to the Copa del Rey Final. The only two changes to the starting XI compared to that game were the obvious change in goal, where Victor Valdes got the nod, with the other change coming in the front three where Alexis Sanchez replaced Pedro.
On paper this was a mouthwatering match-ups with both teams possessing electrifying offenses. That coupled with both teams occasionally struggling on the defensive side of the ball many were expecting a goal-fest. It turned out to be anything but.
Manchester City started the game from midfield, but it was Barcelona who utterly dominated the ball in the early going. The hosts seemed to have no problem giving Barça the ball. City also didn't pressure the ball carrier much until the ball came within the 30-yard line which gave Barcelona plenty of time to move the ball around. However, with little room between the City lines the passes were too slow to open up the defense.
In the opening 10 minutes Manchester City only once came close to Valdes' penalty area, when Pablo Zabaleta eluded Jordi Alba on a quick counter, but the Argentinian's cross was calmly cleared by his national team teammate, Javier Mascherano.
Barcelona simply didn't allow the hosts to "step on the ball" and organize an attack from the back. The high pressure was on for Barcelona and Manchester City struggled to string together more than four or five passes.
But they didn't always need that many passes to threaten, something they showed in the 15th minute. A high ball was sent into the Barcelona penalty area from a deep position that appeared to be controlled by Alvaro Negredo. But Mascherano was in a good position once again to calmly clear the ball to an open teammate. Soon thereafter Yaya Toure went on a run similar to the one in the 2008-09 Copa del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao from which a dangerous cross was sent in but didn't yield a goal.
City slowly started to take control of the match in these minutes as they were able to rather easily create chances. In the 19th minute David Silva created a great chance for Negredo, but Gerard Pique excellently forced the former Sevilla man wide into an angle from which he had no chance to score.
Barcelona's deficiencies on set-pieces have been well documented in recent weeks and City's best chance so far (arguably of the game) came in the 25th minute after a Silva free kick. Valdes whiffed on the punch-out attempt which allowed a header on goal. But the header had a high arc as it reached cross-like heights, falling down right in front of goal where Valdes made up for his mistake and recovered the ball.
Then came Barcelona's minutes again with the Catalans creating a few chances in a short time. First a lovely one-two between Messi and Andres Iniesta gave Iniesta some space but good defending by Yaya didn't allow the Barcelona midfielder to take the shot. Then Xavi surprised everybody but Joe Hart with a 25-yard drive that the England international produced an excellent saved.
Teams exchanged offensive zone time in the final 10 minutes of the half, though the hosts looked the more dangerous side. Negredo especially looked like a man on a mission connecting with just about every cross that came near him (and with those that didn't), but he wasn't able to threaten the Barcelona goal.
The entertaining, but slightly unfulfilling first half came to a scoreless end the very second the clock struck 45 minutes.
Both sides came out in the second half with the same line-up they started the game with. Manchester City quickly threatened through Negredo, but the Barcelona defensive line was up to the early task. Barça then started to assert their domination of the ball once again and quickly the Catalans were able to create dangerous rushes, but at first without any result.
However, that changed in the 53rd minute when Iniesta sent a brilliant through pass to Messi who escaped the defense. Martín Demichelis was giving chase and attempted to dispossess Messi with a diving tackle but caught Messi instead. As the last defender Demichelis was showed a straight red card, but a penalty was also awarded even though the replay showed that the initial contact might have come a few inches outside of the penalty box. Messi stepped up to take the penalty and calmly slotted it into the back of the net.
Despite being a man down City remained dangerous. They created a couple half chances near the one hour mark when Barcelona misplaced a few too many passes, but first Pique and then Alba made good plays to stop the potentially dangerous chances.
Barça also remained dangerous though their job wasn't made any easier with the Demichelis dismissal. City stayed organized in defense, but chances were still there to take advantage of. First Xavi had a shot on goal from about 15-yards out, but his shot sailed over the crossbar, and then about a minute later an even better chance fell into the arms of Alves. The Brazilian and Alexis played a brilliant one-two which allowed Dani to get right to the goal, but his shot whistled wide of the far post.
The hosts created another very good scoring opportunity in the 75th minute when Zabaleta found Silva in the penalty box. Silva wasted no time to take a shot on goal, but Valdes was in perfect position and made the save look easier than it was. Before that chance Tata Martino made his first substitution of the game, replacing Alexis with Neymar.
In the 81st minute Barcelona appeared to have doubled the lead after a brilliant pass by Xavi to Cesc who squared it to Pique in the middle. With the goalkeeper already out of the picture Pique simply tapped the ball in, but the play was whistled dead for offside. The replay, however, showed that Pique only appeared to be offside when the pass was going to Cesc, who was onside at the time, which shouldn't have resulted in the whistle.
Five minutes before the end of regulation Tata pulled Cesc to the bench, replacing him with Sergi Roberto.
Manchester City pressed once again in the last phase of the game, pinning Barcelona into their defensive zone for a couple minutes. But they only had a corner kick, their first of the match, to show for despite creating a lot of buzz around the penalty area.
Though Alves made sure that it would be Barcelona that would have the last say in the game. It appeared to come slightly out of nowhere, but suddenly Alves was once again alone in front of Hart. But this time the Brazilian wasn't going to make the same mistake he made earlier in the game as he scored through the legs of the keeper to secure Barcelona a commanding 2-0 lead going into the second leg which will be played at the Camp Nou on 12 March.
Plenty of football will be played until that point and anything can still happen in the second leg, but Barcelona are now clear favorites to advance to the next round of the competition. Until then the Catalans will have to focus on the Spanish league where on Saturday a tough challenge awaits as Barcelona returns to the Anoeta to face Real Sociedad.
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