Author's note: apologies for the severe delay in posting this - moving to another continent at short notice doesn't leave much time for blogging.
Barcelona’s Champions League Round of 16 second leg victory over Manchester City was a comfortable one, aided by the 2-1 first leg scoreline and the lethargy and openness of the English Premier League champions. Lionel Messi gave a sparkling individual performance and Gerard Piqué and Jérémy Mathieu impressed in the centre of defence, but more than anything this was a game which underlined Barça’s powers as a collective and strengthened their credentials as potential European Cup winners.
The starting elevens held few surprises. Luis Enrique selected what has become known as his ‘Gala XI’ with two expected changes: Marc-André ter Stegen replaced Claudio Bravo in goal, as he routinely does for Champions League fixtures, and Javier Mascherano took the place of the injured Sergio Busquets.
Manuel Pellegrini chose a side full of familiar faces but with some in unfamiliar roles: James Milner was used as a defensive winger on the left to help Aleks Kolarov and Fernandinho cope with Messi, which meant Samir Nasri went out to the right flank and David Silva started behind Sergio Agüero.
The two sides’ strategies were as foreseeable as their line-ups. Barça played a relatively conservative game, looking to find Messi whenever possible and relying on him to play through a wide open City outfit. The visitors had to chase the game and score at least twice to progress in normal time, so they tried to press hard, force turnovers and generate lots of shots on goal.
However, their display was disjointed and hampered by certain players’ refusal to work for the team – Yaya Touré and Samir Nasri gave horrible performances that came close to scoring 0/10. This torpedoed their team showing, and as in the first leg the patchwork appearance of their pressing system meant that the success of their tackling was very poor indeed and Barça found it easy to play the ball into dangerous areas.
Touré’s showing summed up why this Man City team, so expensively assembled, has failed to progress in the Champions League. At 2-1 down and away in the Nou Camp, a central midfielder has to be prepared to give everything to protect the centre of the pitch and prevent Messi from receiving the ball in front of his back four. He has to trust that those ahead of him will do their job and create scoring chances, not see himself as an attacker first and as a defender second.
Touré completely phoned it in, finishing the match with zero tackles won, zero interceptions made and zero blocks. He was always at least a few yards out of position and this left Messi with acres of space to play and Man City’s defence with huge problems to solve. Several of Barça’s advances on City’s goal stemmed directly from Touré’s refusal to defend. It’s a wonder that 1) Fernandinho didn’t murder him in his sleep after the game and 2) that Pellegrini left him on until the 72nd minute.
By contrast, Messi’s individual performance was exactly what his team needed it to be: motivated, menacing and majestic in equal measure. It helped that for the second game running, Man City gave a textbook example of how not to play against Messi. Contrast his performance here with the one against Málaga, in which Javi Gracia’s team showed exactly how to shut him down. Against City he made considerably more forward passes, key passes and successful dribbles, as well as taking more shots. Málaga kept him much further away from goal, made him play square passes and prevented his forward play from connecting with his teammates.
Although there was a clear gulf between the sides by the end, the opening half hour of the match was fairly even. Barça had the majority of the ball and moved City around very well but, Nasri and Touré aside, the away side generally defended well, limiting Barça to one shot on target. That being said, yet another moment of madness from Vincent Kompany should have led to the opening goal, but Neymar’s shot hit the post and rolled wide on the other side of the goal.
In the end it was City’s refusal to sit back and their inability to plug the midfield that cost them. In the 31st minute they committed several players forward for an attack from the right flank, but Jordi Alba forced a turnover and sprinted out of defence, starting a move which quickly covered the length of the pitch and ended with Ivan Rakitić lifting the ball over Joe Hart. A more savvy side than City would never have left themselves so open, even when chasing the game away from home. As soon as Rakitić brought down Messi’s excellent crossfield pass and put the ball in the net, the tie was dead.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this Barça performance was the sturdiness of the defence. Luis Enrique’s move away from the positional play and possession-based principles of the Guardiola/Vilanova era has been and probably always will be controversial, but it’s hard to think of a recent Barça side that has been this good at the back, and the manager deserves full credit for building a new system that doesn’t leave the back four so easily exposed. They drop deep and keep their shape brilliantly, the midfield supports them without question and Piqué and Mathieu clear everything that comes into the box.
To his credit, Pellegrini recognised that Nasri and Touré weren’t pulling their weight and replaced both. Jesús Navas replaced Nasri at half-time and Wilfried Bony came on for Touré with 18 minutes left, although by that point it was too late. Pellegrini also got Silva and Milner to switch positions at half-time in a bid to increase the former’s involvement in the game.
What actually happened was that his demoralised outfit collapsed: Barça had four good shots on goal in the first three minutes of the second half. But for Joe Hart, the game would have become an embarrassment. After that, however, Barça made their own tactical error, sitting back and inviting City forward, presumably to create space for Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez to play on the break.
This emboldened City and for the first time in the game their press became effective. Piqué and Mathieu sometimes found themselves with no time to pick a pass into midfield and hit long balls towards Suárez, which were inevitably cut out. The period between minutes 49 and 67 was by far City’s best of the game, but even so they only worked ter Stegen once – Kolarov hammered the ball straight down ter Stegen’s throat from distance for the second time in the game.
The penalty awarded to City in the 77th minute could have changed the game on the night, but Agüero’s dismal spot-kick was easily saved by ter Stegen and that was pretty much that. Barça had several more chances to extend the margin of victory but the score stayed at 1-0 due to a combination of Hart’s excellence and the laziness of the strikers. They had several chances to break with a numerical advantage but messed each one up due to poor decision-making. Take the below shot, for example: it should always end in a goal, and it didn’t.
That’s a minor quibble, however, and this was generally a very positive Barça display. The champions of England were once again vanquished with consummate ease and Luis Enrique must feel very confident about the prospect of facing a Zlatan-less Paris Saint-Germain team in the next round.