FC Barcelona face their toughest test of the season so far tomorrow evening, as they prepare to take on Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City at the Etihad Arena in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash with the Premier League runners-up. It's without a shadow of a doubt the tie of the round and easily the toughest that Barcelona have faced at this stage in recent memory. With a squad full of superstar players, Manchester City are not only capable of defeating the Blaugrana over two legs, they are capable of winning this entire competition.
Their home form is simply extraordinary -- we're talking Barça in the Golden Years under Pep Guardiola extraordinary here -- as aside from a couple of blemishes, the Citizens have been near perfect on home turf. Of course, their away form can leave a lot to be desired, but City are one of a select few sides to be able to claim a victory over Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich -- at the Allianz Arena no less.
There was definitely a reason why Manchester City were the team to avoid in the draw, but let's be honest for a moment here, just as Barcelona would have preferred an easier tie, Manchester City are likely to be equally apprehensive about the prospect of a two legged encounter with the reigning La Liga champions. Their manager is an excellent tactician, but one who often came unstuck against Barça in his time in Spain. And that's not just at Villareal and Malaga; that includes his time in charge of Real Madrid. With arguably a better squad at his disposal, facing probably the worst team in the Guardiola era (Ibrahimovic-led Barcelona) the Chilean came up short.
And let's not forget about their squad either. From David Silva to Jesus Navas via Alvaro Negredo and fellow Real Madrid reject, Javi Garcia, Manchester City boast a whole host of names who will have been subjected to years of defeats at the hands of the Blaugrana at their former clubs. Even midfield general Yaya Toure is only at the club because Barcelona ultimately decided he wasn't good enough to start in their system.
Perhaps that is a little unfair on the Ivorian who is surely one of the world's best in his position, but the fact remains that Barça were and have been comfortable without him. For all the pre match talk suggesting that he will dominate the midfield thanks to his athleticism and general quality, I'm bemused at the short-sightedness of some pundits: at the end of the day, here we have a player that was surplus to requirements in the Barcelona system. If tomorrow's match was likely to be played on Manchester City's terms, perhaps Toure would be more of a threat, but it's not going to be.
Even the imperious Bayern Munich made concessions against Barcelona last season; the game is always played on Barcelona's terms, in Barcelona's unmistakable style and so, wouldn't it be more reasonable to suggest that Toure, who remember wasn't good enough to displace Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Sergio Busquets, will spend the bulk of his time chasing the ball rather than enforcing his own style on the match?
Pellegrini surely sensed that the midfield battle would not be won by Toure alone; the most important cog in his machine is arguably going to be Fernandinho, who returns to the squad after a brief injury lay-off. Why else rush the Brazilian back into the fold?
Not that he made much of an impact against us for Shakhtar Donetsk...
That's not to say that Manchester City are a poor side or that they do not stand a chance tomorrow -- quite the opposite in fact. Barcelona's away form in general and in the UEFA Champions League especially, is far from spectacular. If City win tomorrow it will be no surprise, but importantly, it's unlikely to be decisive either. Nor will it be reflective of Barcelona's true ability, or that of Gerardo Martino. As far as season-defining games go, this match sure won't teach us much.
Unless FC Barcelona win.
We couldn't manage it against AC Milan, against AFC Ajax or against Bayern Munich. To escape the Etihad with a win would signal a marked improvement -- and that would be reflective of our ability and that of Gerardo Martino as head coach. And after an emphatic 6-0 win over Rayo Vallecano last Saturday, there is every reason to believe this could be our night -- the night that Barcelona retook their place as Europe's greatest team.
Gerardo Martino travelled to Manchester today with a 23-man squad that will obviously be cut down to just 18 on the night itself which can be fairly easily deduced, but the identity of his starting XI is a mystery. There are so many variables, so many key decisions to be made and so many possible permutations that he could opt for. I have my own hunch about his game plan, but I could be wrong -- really, only Martino knows what Martino is going to do tomorrow evening.
We thought that we had the line-up for El Clasico sussed out, only for Tata to surprise us with an unorthodox selection that won us the match. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and make no mistake, Gerardo Martino is the man at the moment. As Guardiola would say, Martino is El Puto Jefe; he went toe-to toe-to with one of the modern era's greatest managers in Carlo Ancelotti and scored a knockout victory. In three electrifying bouts with the talented Diego Simeone, Martino's supposedly frail defense have lifted as many trophies as they conceded goals.
Quite a record for a coach that should still be adjusting to European football.
He'll be keeping his cards close to his chest, hoping to call Pellegrini's bluff; the wily veteran is a formidable opponent for our chief, but Martino has a few aces up his sleeve in the form of his superstar squad.
Victor Valdés will start in goal, against one of the very clubs rumoured to be interested in securing his services this summer -- a link that was quickly dismissed by Pellegrini. The Catalan shot-stopper will have to be at his best to deny a rampant Ciy attack that has scored an incredible 117 goals in all competitions thus far this season. They will create chances after all, but if it's his night, we know Valdés can be equal to their very best efforts. His composure under pressure will also be key up against a home side that will surely look to press from the front if they have designs on securing a win.
Thankfully, Valdés has a trustworthy defense in front of him. Well, not so much from a defensive perspective, but technically and offensively, Barça's defense is amongst the best in the world. And all jokes aside, they turn up on the biggest occasions under Martino. In 360 minutes against the two main Madrid outfits, Barcelona have conceded twice, and one of those came at the tail-end of a comfortable win over Real Madrid. The potential loss of Javier Mascherano is a bitter blow to Barça's chances, but the improvement displayed by Marc Bartra and the return of Carles Puyol has eased fears somewhat.
Bartra started alongside Gerard Piqué in the Bayern Munich debacle, but has matured considerably ever since, to the extent that some Culés have campaigned for him to replace Mascherano in the defense on a permanent basis. Perhaps that is a little premature, especially for matches of this stature, but it’s still an option – a better option than it was last year. Carles Puyol on the other hand continues to struggle with injuries, but only a fool would question his commitment.
Puyol would battle all night long and jump through walls for this team, to represent the colours, to play for his fans. What he may lack in pace, he makes up for in timing and understanding, while the absence of Sergio Aguero will certainly play into his hands. Alvaro Negredo possesses great technical ability, but has made his mark in England and indeed throughout his career with his physical style – a style that tends to struggle against players like Puyol – and Mascherano if he can make the starting XI.
Look at Diego Costa for instance; the Spanish forward has set La Liga alight with 21 goals this season, but the brutish striker was shut down with ease by Mascherano a month ago. The timing of Mascherano’s interventions were impeccable, and without a real second dimension to his game, Costa couldn’t adapt and find a way past the Argentine. Similarly, it’s tough to anticipate Negredo developing an elusive dribbling game in case his athleticism doesn’t trouble Puyol or Mascherano.
At full-back, Dani Alves will start on the right hoping to continue his recent run of good form with another impressive – and maybe even decisive – performance. The Brazilian is under pressure to deliver at both ends in this crucial match, as the tactical battle may well be won and lost on that right flank. On the one hand, Barcelona will have Dani Alves and an as yet unnamed winger, while on the other, City will boast Aleksandr Kolarov and a winger of their own choosing. Maybe it will be Samir Nasri, who marked his return on Saturday with a goal, or maybe it will be David Silva, or even James Milner.
The winner might not even be the side that makes the other adjust; it might just be the side that takes advantage of the one that doesn’t. If City don’t curb Kolarov’s offensive runs, and if they don’t force Nasri, or whoever may start further forward, to track back, there will be space for Alves to exploit. And in the final third, there are few better than the former Sevilla full-back. Conversely, if Alves leaves Piqué susceptible, City can take advantage, especially if Kolarov does start. The Serbian full-back can make the difference with his fearsome left-boot; a boot that has already created seven goals for his colleagues this season.
Jordi Alba is favourite to start on the other flank despite Adriano Correia’s opening goal in the weekend’s win over Rayo Vallecano; the Brazilian may appear to be the safer option, but tactically, Alba is crucial in one of Martino’s systems in particular – that’s the very system that the team played in the Clasico, and just a week ago against Real Sociedad. Four defenders, four midfielders and just two attackers – usually sans a left-winger; freeing Alba up to maraud up and down the touchline.
That does leave gaps in behind, which Puyol may struggle to cover if he does get the nod to start – but offensively, it keeps the Barça system as symmetrical as possible, ensuring that the club maintains a healthy balance to its attack, all the while strengthening the midfield and allowing Martino to field Cesc Fàbregas, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta in the same line-up.
Personally, that’s the system I would opt for. Maybe I would lean towards selecting Adriano in place of Alba, and there remains a question mark over who would be best suited to starting with Lionel Messi in attack, but I simply cannot and refuse to choose between Xavi, Iniesta and Fàbregas. After all, Sergio Busquets is untouchable, and with good reason. His tactical nous completes the Barcelona machine, and it’s easy to see when Busquets is either missing, or simply has a bad game, because it’s usually visible on the scoreboard. Like against Valencia; Busi had a rare off-day, Barcelona lost. Busquets was carrying a knock against Bayern Munich last season, Barcelona lost.
The pattern continues, and Busquets will have to be at the peak of his powers tomorrow; not to exert control over possession – that will come naturally for the Blaugrana – instead, Barcelona need Busquets to curb Manchester City’s midfield; stay calm, stay disciplined...stay focused. We cannot afford to allow David Silva a chance to search for a killer pass, nor can we allow Sami Nasri a chance to dribble at the defense, while it would be suicidal to let Yaya Toure attack the backline with momentum on his side.
Busquets will have to be everything to everyone, the yin to every yang; he needs to be omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent – so it’s just as well that he is as close as it comes to being a midfield deity. Busquets after all, is the reason why Barça agreed to let Yaya Toure move to Manchester – we can’t have Toure showing us up with a dominant performance now can we?
And for the rest of the Barcelona midfield, this game could be their finest hour. Manchester City are dangerous going forward, but they don’t have a Busquets. They had to settle for a Yaya Toure, which is fine if you’re on the offensive, but not so great if you’re on the retreat. Toure fouls more often than Busquets, gets dribbled more often than Busquets and in the UEFA Champions League, picks up more bookings than Sergio Busquets.
Tactically, he can wreak havoc against opposing sides, but he can cause chaos internally as well. I eluded to it earlier, Fernandinho has been rushed back into contention for a reason, but even he is not the solution to all of Manchester City’s problems. He can pressure the Barça midfield, but he is not a "true" holding midfielder either; there will be gaps, there will be space and oh boy, who better to have on the field to exploit those gaps than an inform Cesc Fàbregas, the majestic Xavi Hernández and the magical Andrés Iniesta?
Three players who can not only pick out a pass, but who can create space for one another and their colleagues with their intelligent movement, not to mention dribble past defenders themselves. Imagine a scenario, not too farfetched in which Barcelona catch Toure and Fernandinho out of position. They are streaking forward on the counter attack with Iniesta, Fàbregas, Messi and possibly Pedro, Alexis Sánchez or Neymar bearing down on the retreating Manchester City defense.
The same Manchester City defense that looked so out of depth against Chelsea.
Cesc Fàbregas in particular has been unlocking even the tightest of defenses, the master-class he put on against Rayo Vallecano demonstrated the damage he can do against teams that elect for a more "open" approach – while Andrés Iniesta return to top form has been an utter joy to watch. His trickery in the dribble could make the difference against a City backline that has repeatedly shown it’s frailties in dealing with technically gifted attackers.
Speaking of which, I hear that Lionel Messi could start tomorrow. It’s a brave decision from Gerardo Martino, but one that might just pay off...
The four-time Ballon d’Or winner is back on form, but not yet back to his very best – that’s still to come, and thankfully for Culés, Messi often reaches his peak at this very stage of the competition. It’s always around February or March that Messi really joins the party – four goals against Arsenal, five goals against Bayer Leverkusen; a brace against AC Milan just last season. In three Champions League appearances this season, Messi scored an incredible six goals, including a hat-trick against AFC Ajax.
The novel thing with Lionel Messi is that it doesn’t matter about the calibre of the opposition. Ajax, Rayo Vallecano, Real Madrid; it’s all the same. Messi could score a hat-trick against any team on the world if he’s feeling up to it, and he is surely relishing the chance to shine on English soil. He’s done it at Wembley, but at a partisan venue, Messi is yet to really set the country alight. If Manchester City are as open as some expect, Messi will get chances – can he take them?
Or will he take a backseat, draw the Manchester City pressure and create for his teammates instead? With 11 assists in 27 appearances, this has been one of Messi’s more creative campaigns to date and given the clinical form displayed by Pedro, Alexis Sánchez and of course, Neymar, Messi doesn’t have to be the one to score the goals anymore.
Which leads us on nicely to one of Martino’s biggest decisions: Alexis Sánchez, Pedro or Neymar? The Brazilian was out of the reckoning entirely until the closing moments of the weekend’s match against Rayo when he suddenly fired himself right into the spotlight with a sensational golazo. Off the back of that goal, Neymar arguably showed that he is ready to start and make a difference – he has that special talent that Alexis and Pedro probably don’t possess.
Pedro however is a big-game player. Scorer in six competitions in a single season. Scorer in multiple finals, multiple Clasicos and countless other important matches, Pedro is probably the one player after Lionel Messi that I would want to see one-on-one with Joe Hart tomorrow. Alexis Sánchez on the other hand doesn’t possess that game-winning ability all too often and wasn’t very clinical at all heading into this season.
But something has changed. Alexis has confidence, he has talent; he has it all, or at least some of the time. Against Real Madrid, he spotted a chance out of nothing, and made it work against all the odds. Increasingly when one-on-one with the keeper, I feel like Sánchez is a dead-cert to score, even after a couple of seasons where I wondered if he knew where the goal even was...
In that sense, is there even a wrong answer? Probably not, but there is a right answer that will make more sense than the others, and I can’t wait to see who Martino thinks that individual is. Maybe there is a final option as well; drop a midfielder and keep three up front perhaps?
One of the perks (pitfalls?) to living in England and being English is the exhaustive (overwhelming?) coverage of the English Premier League. It makes sense, in a roundabout way I suppose, even if I personally prefer to invest my time, efforts and interest in La Liga. Despite being born and raised in the South-East of the country, I have family ties to Manchester City – and know all about their fall, and subsequent rise from the-then Division Three to become Premier League champions and squaring off against FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
It’s astonishing when you sit and think about it, but for City fans, there is no point dwelling on the past anymore. Not that they have forgotten their past, or left their roots behind, but the future is too exciting. The present is all too believable now. No longer are they travelling to Layer Road, the ground I grew up a mile or so away from, they are preparing for a trip to Catalunya, where they will hope to defeat FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou. And if they can’t do that, they will at least want to knock Barça out off the back of a strong first-leg result tomorrow.
They have all the right tools to get it done. A great goalkeeper who has recovered his confidence and concentration to regain his place in the starting XI; a dual threat full-back in Pablo Zabaleta who can rival Dani Alves for his title as the premier right-back in world football and a leader of a centre-half in Vincent Kompany. The Belgian hasn’t exactly got a regular partner at the moment thanks to injury and loss of form, but he is still displaying his class in an otherwise somewhat below-par defense.
Is it his fault that he and his defense are often left short-changed by a disappointing midfield? Of course not, but if Culés want to criticise Gerard Piqué for the same thing, I feel as though we can pinpoint Kompany and the rest of the Manchester City defense as a weak-link. Pellegrini must choose between Matija Nastasic, Martin Demichelis and Joleon Lescott for the remaining central defensive spot – and I would be optimistic about our chances against either of the latter, while the former is only just returning from injury. Hardly an ideal time to welcome FC Barcelona into their home anyway.
Gael Clichy has declined somewhat in the past year or so, and has been displaced by Aleksandr Kolarov as a result; the Serbian offers an outlet on the left not too dissimilar to Alba for Barcelona and Clichy was hardly a steady defensive influence, making Pellegrini’s decision relatively straight-forward. Still, Clichy could start if Pellegrini wants a little more stability – but he needs this result just as much as he needs to avoid defeat.
In midfield, Javi Garcia is a solid choice, but it appears as though he may be forced out of the line-up in favour of the returning Fernandinho. The loss, or more accurately, the half-witted sale of Nigel de Jong was crucial from a tactical standpoint last season, enabling Manchester United to pull away in the title race as City couldn’t grind out results they way they did in their title-winning campaign. Fernandinho has rectified that to an extent. His energy and enthusiasm complements Yaya Toure perfectly – we know that the Ivorian can be pretty nonchalant at times with his defensive duties and Fernandinho covers for him well.
Not entirely, but well nonetheless.
Pellegrini could surprise us though; Sergio Aguero’s absence leaves him a little short of concrete attacking options – Alvaro Negredo should start at centre-forward, but Edin Dzeko isn’t his best partner and Stefan Jovetic hasn’t got much experience in this team, even if he is supremely gifted. It would be a bold choice to opt for the Montenegrin forward, the safer choice could be to move Yaya Toure behind Negredo. Javi Garcia and Fernandinho provide more stability in the centre and maybe that helps City keep Barcelona at bay?
David Silva will start on one side of midfield, with James Milner, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri battling it out for the final place. The pragmatic coach in me would go for James Milner’s workrate; particularly as Nasri is unlikely to track back, but then again, what do I care about Manchester City’s chances?
Manchester City: WWWLDW
FC Barcelona 0-1 Manchester City – 19th August 2009 – Joan Gamper Trophy
Martin Petrov scored the only goal of the match as Manchester City escaped the Camp Nou with a 1-0 win and the Joan Gamper Trophy against a FC Barcelona side featuring summer signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic making his debut.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Fàbregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta
Manchester City (4-2-2-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Nastasic, Kolarov; Toure, Fernandinho; Nasri, Silva; Jovetic, Negredo
This match is going to go one of two ways: either Barcelona will win, and win comfortably, or Manchester City will win, and win comfortably. There is unlikely to be much middle ground, and I’m rarely in the mood to predict a resounding defeat for my favourite team. So I’ll lean on the optimistic side and predict a 3-1 Barcelona win.
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