The moment of truth has arrived. Tomorrow, the business end of the season will start proper with the return of the UEFA Champions League as FC Barcelona prepare to take on English Premier League champions, Manchester City at the Etihad Arena. This highly-anticipated Round of 16 first-leg pits two of the competition’s best sides against one another for the second year in succession, as the Blaugrana will aim to make it into the quarter-finals at City’s expense once again.
Tipped as one of the tournament favourites at the outset of the season, FC Barcelona recovered from a shaky performance and defeat against Paris Saint-Germain to coast through Group F as winners. Manchester City on the other hand struggled to find form in their group, stumbling against CSKA Moscow before a Matchday 6 victory against AS Roma booked their place in the knockout stages.
I was at the Stadio Olympico on that breezy winter’s night in Rome, and having travelled with the expectation of Roma guaranteeing their qualification on the night, I was suitably surprised by the maturity and poise of City’s performance. After often losing their heads in difficult positions earlier in the group stage, the English champions maintained their composure in a hostile atmosphere and eventually silenced the boisterous Roman public with a gladiatorial display of ruthlessness.
A period of indifference in domestic competition followed that feat as City slipped in the Premier League title race, ceding a lot of ground to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea FC with a number of shock results. To compound their embarrassment, Manuel Pellegrini’s side were dumped out of the FA Cup by lower league opposition in ignominious fashion; suddenly, a UEFA Champions League tie with FC Barcelona didn’t quite look as glamorous, or indeed as winnable as before.
In contrast, the Blaugrana recovered from a shock defeat at the Anoeta and a very public crisis at the club to register an astonishing 11 match winning streak. It was an incredible run; no matter the calibre of the opposition, Barça merely brushed whoever was unfortunate enough to be their latest victims aside. From La Liga strugglers Elche CF and Deportivo La Coruna, right up to UEFA Champions League runners-up and reigning La Liga champions, Atletico Madrid; it simply didn’t matter.
Barça’s hot streak and the form of their attacking trident in particular, was making the whole world stand up and take notice. While the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were faltering, here we had the Blaugrana sitting on top of the footballing pantheon for perhaps the first time in nearly four years.
An air of confidence pervaded throughout Catalunya, with the fans and media alike entertaining the notion of what had previously been unthinkable and completely unattainable: the treble.
Like all good things however, Barcelona’s winning streak has been brought to an abrupt end in quite poetic fashion by Manuel Pellegrini’s previous employers, Malaga CF. Concurrently, City’s season was revived in equally dramatic fashion. After Mourinho’s Chelsea slipped up at home to newly-promoted Burnley FC, City took to the field at the Eithad knowing that a win would see them begin to close the gap on the runaway league leaders.
Newcastle United were the opposition in name only; over the course of the 90 minutes, City comprehensively played them off the park. After Sergio Aguero gifted the Citizens an early lead from the penalty spot, the entire encounter was a no contest; David Silva, Yaya Toure and even Edin Dzeko – all of the City stars had found form and not with a moment to spare.
And so, that brings us to tomorrow night; this match-up may have been months in the making, but just like any other Champions League tie, it will be won or lost over 180 minutes. Getting off to a good start is imperative, but avoiding disaster in the first-leg is critical – a fact that has led to some cagey affairs in the past week. With recent spells of poor form fresh in the memory, one might anticipate a similar type of match tomorrow.
After all, these are two elite sides, each of whom are more than capable of adopting a patient, tactical approach to knockout football to avoid slipping back, or, deeper into their respective "crises", right?
While neither FC Barcelona nor Manchester City will want to leave themselves susceptible to a defeat, both sides would acknowledge that they play their best football when they adopt an attacking, expansive approach to their play.
Tactical discipline be damned, these are two teams that thrive in open spaces and often struggle to break down organised defenses; having weighed up the pros and cons to each approach, I assume that both Enrique and Pellegrini will agree that their best chance at securing overall progression will come as a result of taking a little risk.
Boldness is a mask for fear, however great.
Indicative of his spell as Barça head coach to date, Luis Enrique has kept his cards close to his chest in the build-up to this match. Usually, conclusions can be drawn from his squad selection about the possible line-up that the opposition can expect to see; yet when all available players are called up and travel with the side, plainly the truth becomes a little harder to spot. Indeed, while one may assume that they know the identity of the three players who will ultimately watch on from the stands, who could claim with any certainty that they know definitively?
In almost every big match to date in the Lucho era, there has been a surprise selection or two: against Real Madrid in El Clasico, it was the inclusion of Jeremy Mathieu at left-back and perhaps even the start handed to Xavi Hernández ahead of Ivan Rakitić. And while Manchester City were fighting for their late qualification in Rome, Enrique was experimenting against Paris Saint-Germain, effectively starting his side in what amounted to an ultra-attacking 3-3-1-3 formation.
The results have been mixed, yet without any doubt, there have always been surprises. Heck, even in our first match against Atletico Madrid, the lack of surprises in itself came as a surprise. What unpredictable decision does Lucho have up his sleeve for us tomorrow? Only time will tell...Humour me though, and we’ll try to guess what that might be.
In goal, Marc-André ter Stegen is tipped to retain his place as the club’s starting UEFA Champions League and all-round cup goalkeeper and while he may lack in certain areas that Claudio Bravo thrives, there are others in which he is more suited to both this match and Barcelona’s general style of play.
So, if ter Stegen is not naturally as communicative and perhaps authoritative as Bravo has gradually become in his lengthy career, the German is a quick-thinker and often even quicker off his line. Indeed, there is no escaping that he is quintessentially a modern keeper, very much in the Manuel Neuer mould. Occasionally, while this may lead to more problems than a consistent veteran presence between the posts, his penchant for the spectacular is capable of deciding football matches on its own.
When he arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach, expectations were high for young ter Stegen. In fact, as time has progressed, those expectations and the general opinion of the German have grown even further. If he is the finished product and therefore capable of not only challenging, but usurping Bravo in the pecking order, he simply has must deliver the goods in matches like this.
Quick off his line though he may be, not even ter Stegen could have bolted off his line with enough speed to deny Juanmi at the weekend as Dani Alves’ costly mistake ultimately proved to be the nail in the Blaugrana coffin. All it took was one lapse of concentration, one moment of madness and one under-hit back-pass and just like that, the match was out of reach.
In reaction to that mistake, Dani Alves took to social media with an inspirational and all too relevant quote on Sunday: "don’t drop the ball. Shake the dust off your shoulders and get up again". Whether he was giving his followers a few choice words of wisdom, or whether he was reminding himself remains to be seen. Of course, everyone has a bad day at the office every once in a while, yet with his future hanging in the balance, Alves couldn’t have picked a worse time for his slip-up.
Conversely, if there was a player that could merely forget their mistakes, smile and continue on irrespective, it would be Alves. His happy-go-lucky spirit has been invaluable throughout our recent periods of success; his confidence and infallible belief in his own ability unwavering, inspiring his colleagues to pick themselves up when times are tough and shake that dust off their own shoulders too.
Last season’s tie against Manchester City was without doubt the highlight of the Brazilians season. In the first-leg at the Etihad it was Dani Alves who delivered the coup de grâce, humiliating the hosts to nutmeg England’s number one, Joe Hart and score Barça’s second goal of the evening. In the return fixture at the Camp Nou, it was Alves who again had the last laugh.
Even after Vincent Kompany grabbed a late equaliser on the night, there was still time for Alves to leave his mark, as another marauding run forward was rewarded with a deserved goal and yet another winner. In 27 appearances this season, Alves is yet to find the back of the net, although he has registered two of his four assists in just 434 minutes of UEFA Champions League action. All throughout his career, and even to this day, Alves has always been one for the big matches – will this prove to be yet another instance in which he shows his class?
In the centre of defense, expect to see Gerard Piqué continue his resurgence as he seeks to re-establish himself as the best centre-half in world football. Certainly, with five goals to his name already this season, Piqué is amongst the most prolific but it’s his improved leadership than has seen him win the most plaudits this season.
With Carles Puyol retired, the Barça defense was missing its leader – a figurehead who could lead by example and inspire those around him. Traditionally, that hasn’t been a quality of Geri’s game yet as the times change, so do people and Piqué is no exception. Having rediscovered his love of the game, Piqué is entertaining the thought of prolonging his career to emulate our iconic former captain; and what better way to achieve that than by leading this club to glory, one match at a time?
Alongside Piqué, shouldering the defensive burden will likely be Javier Mascherano. Luis Enrique may have dabbled with the idea of deploying Mascherano in his usual, more natural midfield position this season, but when push has come to shove, the Argentine nicknamed El Jefecito can usually be found right in the heart of the backline, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
This time round, he will be tasked with foiling a compatriot of his: Sergio Aguero, as Diego Maradona’s former son-in-law looks to spearhead a home victory. On paper, it promises to be a fascinating clash – in reality, it’s the kind of match-up that Mascherano loves, while from a Barça perspective, it’s one that Luis Enrique will welcome, particularly if the alternative is for Mascherano to duel with the taller Wilfried Bony.
Three of the back four are done and out of the way, leaving us with the final spot at left-back to decide. Previously, there wouldn’t have been an argument: it would have been Jordi Alba and that would have been the end of the discussion. However, Alba has struggled for form in recent weeks and has attracted the ire of Culés for his lack of productivity at either end.
That therefore leaves the door partially open for competition – but when that competition is Jeremy Mathieu, one realises pretty quickly why Alba remains in the team. Adriano Correia is a solid alternative, yet for one reason or another, is rarely trusted in a match of this importance, leaving us with Alba – for better, or for worse.
In midfield, Sergio Busquets should start at pivote. If you check out the comments section to one of our most recent articles, you’ll see that I debated the relative merits of Busquets’ inclusion and so probably wouldn’t appreciate me doing it again. The growing dissidence against Busquets still strikes me as bizarre and somewhat unfounded as some continue to try and belittle his ability, as if he was and is only capable of being successful in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering footballing machine.
To suggest as much would be to ignore the subtle nuances of his game and to focus on the most obviously aesthetic traits. No, he is not as quick as Javier Mascherano. Nor is he a midfield destroyer, throwing himself into tackles with reckless abandon and a wanton bloodlust. However, he is composed and adept at recycling possession, even under immense pressure from opposing midfielders.
Tactically, he knows when to foul, and when to win fouls as well for the benefit of his team. Does he occasionally struggle without Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta in-form and alongside him? Of course he does – but who wouldn’t, and indeed given how the rest of the team struggle to operate without Lionel Messi on top form, does that mean that they too are all useless and need replacing? Rather than complain about weaknesses, we should play to our strengths – and that means Busquets starting in midfield.
Who however will join him? That much is very uncertain – a previous lock, Andrés Iniesta has seen his form dip rather dramatically at times this season and it was he, not young Rafinha Alcântara who should have been withdrawn at the weekend. Still, he is vice-captain and remains one of the best players in the world on his day – it isn’t a gamble to play him, but the gamble that Lucho could take on a Rafinha for instance might have a greater pay-off.
Risk against reward, rearing its ugly head once again.
Ivan Rakitić and his industrious playing style should see the Croatian midfielder get the nod in the other midfield berth, leaving Iniesta to fight it out with Rafinha, while Xavi provides an interesting alternative if Lucho is planning on a more conservative, possession-orientated approach to this first-leg.
My money? Call me crazy, but I’m seeing a start for Xavi in the stars...
Moving onto the attack, I can’t see any shocks here: Lionel Messi will start. Neymar will also start, with Luis Suarez the final piece in the attacking puzzle. All three had afternoons to forget on Saturday against Malaga, frustrated by a team that was set out to not to impose their style on the match, but to prohibit and deny Barcelona from imposing theirs. Whether they scored their goal on the counter-attack after a Blaugrana mistake, or as a result of a set-piece, or even from the best part of 30 yards – Malaga didn’t care how they scored, they just wanted to stop Barça from scoring.
Therein lies the beauty of facing a side like Manchester City. By definition as champions, Manchester City are a side that simply has to focus on their own offense. Holding Barcelona to a draw will not be enough to appease their fans and win over their critics – they too are obliged to go for the jugular.
A reduced focus on defense, even in relative terms to the match against Malaga will benefit Barcelona in finding space and creating chances, while the contrast in itself will only serve to accentuate that. After 90 minutes in which they were denied even an inch, if Barça’s attack are given just a foot of space against this Manchester City defense, it will seem like a mile.
This time round, it’s not a question of if we will create chances; it’s a question of whether we put enough of them away to win this match. Personally, I like our odds.
While I can’t boast the pedigree that my fellow Barça Blaugranes editor and colleague, Sam Cooper (who is celebrating three wonderful years with the site) can, I too have my own links to tomorrow’s opposition. Despite being born in the East of England, I grew up with a father who supported City through thick and thin; right from their dark days in the old Division Two, to the influx of oil-money from Qatar and the arrival of Robinho, up to the present day as two-time Premier League champions.
As such, I’m incredibly familiar with the club and it’s form this season, although after last year’s somewhat bitter reaction to their eventual (deserved) defeat, I do yearn for the days of Uwe Rosler, Paul Dickov and last-minute goals from John Macken somewhat more than I appreciate the current incarnation of Manchester City. While there can be no doubting that the Sheikh has had a positive influence on the club’s fortunes and on the local area, as he continues to invest heavily in the surrounding infrastructure, the club to me has lost some of its soul and unique charm.
They were the plucky underdogs, the noisy neighbours up against the mighty Manchester United, and while I take great personal pleasure in United’s demise, I dislike the attitude it has instilled in the City players and a very small minority of its fanbase.
All of a sudden, the perennial losers in Manchester are utterly incapable of accepting defeat. The way in which the players lost their heads in Moscow for example was shameful and utterly deplorable, and it’s just desserts that Yaya Toure continues to serve a suspension for his part in the events of that night. While Culés could stand to learn from a passionate fanbase that continues to cheer on its players in the face of adversity, City players should take notes from the Barcelona playbook when it comes to facing defeats.
Accepting a portion of the blame is paramount – belittling the referee (ahem, Manuel Pellegrini) or insulting the quality of the opposition that just comprehensively defeated you, twice (ahem, Vincent Kompany) is not the way to go about it. So, while the important question is whether they have learnt their lesson on the pitch, a secondary plotline is whether they have learnt their lesson off it, such that they react accordingly if they are defeated once again.
In terms of team news, expect Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, David Silva and Sergio Aguero to form the spine of the team. Around them, there are question marks – does Pellegrini stick with Martin Demichelis or does he risk the inexperienced and often calamitous Eliaquim Mangala? Will Gael Clichy get the nod at left-back, or will we see Martin Kolarov again after his impressive performance against Newcastle?
In midfield, will Pellegrini go for a double-pivot of Fernandinho and Fernando, or just one of the two? Will James Milner be hurried back into action after his recent injury? Does Samir Nasri continue, or will he inject some pace with Jesus Navas? What about Frank Lampard, does he have a place in a match like this? Edin Dzeko, or WIlfried Bony? How about neither?
So many questions – it really depends just how adventurous Pellegrini is feeling on the night.
Manchester City: LLDDWW
FC Barcelona 2-1 Manchester City – 12th March 2014 – UEFA Champions League
It’s incredible to think just how different this Barça team was last year; only two players from the starting line-up on this night have left the club (Cesc Fàbregas and Victor Valdés), yet our style of play is so wildly different. On this night at the Camp Nou, our old self was enough to defeat City again, as Lionel Messi and Dani Alves struck either side of a goal from Vincent Kompany to gift Barça a 4-1 aggregate win.
Barcelona (4-3-3): ter Stegen; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Rakitić, Xavi; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Manchester City (4-2-2-2): Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Fernando, Fernandinho; Nasri, Silva; Aguero, Dzeko
I’m optimistic by nature, but by no means certain: I’m going for a 2-0 repeat of last year’s win.
- The Punditry Pit: Luis Enrique to get the most out of Messi, Neymar and Suarez at the Etihad?
- FC Barcelona News: 23 February 2015; 21 Players Travel to Manchester, Barcelona B Lose to Llagostera
- FC Barcelona Squad Named For UEFA Champions League Tie With Manchester City
- A look at Manchester City
- FC Barcelona News: 22 February 2015; Barcelona Suffer Surprising Defeat to Malaga, Felix Brych to Referee Manchester City Game