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Manchester City 0 Barcelona 2: Some Thoughts

February 19, 2014

The biggest match of a generation? The moment we had all been waiting for, had always dreamt of a mere 5477 days previous when we had lined up against Macclesfield? Well whatever, the hyperbole for this match was off the scale, the giddiness hard to restrain.

Clearly this was not our biggest match in decades. A first-leg tie in the last 16 of the Champions League does not compare to that day against QPR, or the Newcastle match that preceded it, nor the derby before that or the FA Cup final against Stoke and not even the semi-final against United. During that title run-in I aged a decade and had three nervous breakdowns.
Our owners may see last night slightly different of course. But it’s what it symbolised that is important. This was not our first game against a European superpower, but it was our first game in the knock-out stage and perhaps Barcelona carry a slightly different aura to those that we have played already. It was a match in the knockout stage of the Champions League against Barcelona and some of us struggled to get our heads round the fact that this was happening when we considered what had gone before.

So, caught up in the excitement from others, I spent yesterday with a churning stomach, worried and also expectant about what lay ahead. I have always been negative about City and remain so against the top sides as I can’t shake it our of my system after decades of disappointment, and I felt stupid for adopting a similar mindset as when we used to play United as massive underdogs – namely, please don’t concede early and don’t get walloped. I just wanted us to be competitive over these two legs, as it would be another step forward for the club. As I said, rather negative, but hopefully one day my glass will always be half-full.

But to be honest, I was still not THAT bothered. The Champions League has not yet captured my imagination, as domestic honours still mean more to me. Let’s look at it from a clinical point of view. Should we get past Barcelona, we then have the likes of Bayern Munich, PSG, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund to beat to the cup. Domestically, we are 3-1 to win the treble. United fans argued with a friend on Facebook last night wondering how we could not see the Champions League as a priority, but it’s just being realistic. If City win the league and a cup (or two), there’s not a City fan on earth who would give a damn about our exit to Barcelona.
Terrorizing Europe? All in good time….

Nevertheless, Manuel Pellegrini had a huge dilemma for the match. Should he stick to his mantra of never conceding to the opposition when picking his side, or should he be pragmatic and try and negate Barcelona’s multi-pronged threats? He would have been praised and criticised in equal measures whichever route he took, but thankfully for me he took the latter route and was pragmatic. It was not a total success, sadly.

But as I said, it’s what I would have done, the Bayern rout fresh in the mind still. We don’t quite have the team yet to play our strongest XI against any team. Not yet. Not quite – and as Jonathan Wilson explained in his match report – you HAVE to take special measures against Barcelona.

The surprise came with the selection of Kolarov in left-midfield to nullify the threat of Alves and Sanchez and whilst City’s two left-backs did not have great games, the pairing did work to an extent. With Kolarov off the pitch, Barcelona’s threat down their right increased rapidly.

Typical City lives on – the mosaic piece our section had to hold up fell to pieces as soon as I touched it, and left I and many others covered in black pieces that took the rest of the evening to scrape off our hands, faces and phones. Thanks.For.That.

Barcelona hogged the ball for 20 minutes, but perhaps City were happy with this. I was slightly concerned if this was setting the pattern for the rest of the game, but I wasn’t worried about Barcelona’s immediate threat as there wasn’t one. City retained a tight shape, were disciplined and there were no chances for the visitors. After that, City grew into the game more and saw more of the ball.

And possession does not win games. We all remember the Mourinho master class that was administered to us the other week, all done with minimal possession.  When Bayern Munich beat Barcelona 4-0 last season, they had 34% possession. Pellegrini may well have been fine with City not seeing much of the ball.

Those who have watched Barcelona say they are weakest in defence and are vulnerable from wide and clearly Pellegrini included Navas and Kolarov with the intention of getting plenty of balls into the box from wide to test Barcelona’s defence. The biggest disappointment of the night for me was that we just didn’t get into enough good positions to do this. Alba stayed deep to negate Navas and Kolarov was simply unable to get past his full-back.

And yes, up to the red card, Demichelis had played well. His distribution out of defence was occasionally wayward, but he wasn’t the only one. His experience was put to good use prior to his dismissal, with interception after interception, and the trio of him, Kompany and Fernandinho kept Messi super-quiet. But the fact is, City are currently deficient in one of their central defence slots, and whoever Pellegrini had picked would have proved troublesome and a potential weak link. Lescott hardly covered himself in glory once he was introduced.

Then of course came the turning point of the game. It was probably a foul on Navas, especially in the context of a fussy referee, but not getting a free kick in the opposition half is not worthy of great debate. Demichelis is understandably the focus of huge criticism today, but Kompany did not help by playing Messi onside. With hindsight, Demichelis should have let Messi through and then if he scores, he scores. But he had a split second decision to make and was probably aware of how bad it would look if he didn’t make a challenge. Sadly, he was never getting the ball and the rest is history.

As for it being outside the area – as Micah Richards showed in a pitiful 2-0 defeat to Everton a few years ago, a foul by holding a player that starts outside the area but continues into the area is a penalty, but I am not sure it applies to a tackle also. The foul as we all know happened outside the area, but I hold little blame to the officials as at full speed it looked like a penalty to me and plenty around me.

After that it was damage limitation and City almost did their job. I may have low expectations, but I was proud of how they coped for the final half-hour, after a small post-goal surge from Barcelona. What a shame that they threw away all the good work at the death.

There really has been a huge disparity of opinion on how well City played however. Men against boys said some, a good display until one crucial turning-point said I and others.

As I have said all along – we are not as good as Barcelona yet. Critics will moan about how we have spent billions of pounds, but this is clearly not the complete side or squad yet and it will take time and it will take a successful academy to reach where Barcelona are. Barcelona themselves went through this same process a decade ago, revolutionizing their whole approach to how they were run and City are playing catch-up now. We also have a new manager, and like all managers, he will truly make his mark in the transfer market in his second summer transfer window. We need a top class central defender (perhaps two), we need a top class left-back and we need a top class defensive midfielder. If we make the academy produce just one good player a year, the future is brighter than we could ever imagine. Perhaps PSG are showing you can spend and be the finished article quickly, but as long as we continue to move forward there’s little to complain about.

As for the referee, it is all part of the learning curve for mastering European competitions that you have to put up with such displays. As is often the case, having replayed the match he wasn’t quite as bad as I had first thought, but he was ridiculously fussy, his protection of Valdes was ridiculous, his handing out of yellow cards unnecessary and he failed to let the game flow. Apart from that he was fine.

Jamie Jackson of the Guardian’s Five Talking Points included the following:
David Silva sparkles only sporadically
….after Messi’s penalty – and Demichelis’s sending off …he became an ever more peripheral figure as City engaged in damage limitation.
Yaya Touré struggles to make an impact

Elsewhere, the Telegraph gave Kompany 6/10.

As for after the match, I was very disappointed with Pellegrini, something I never expected to say. I thought he was above such tirades. Perhaps he is now trying some of these amazing mind-games that deflect attention away from the team, or was trying to paint a story of bad luck in front of the club’s owners or maybe he just lost his cool. Either way it was stupid, he will now be banned and he has not helped the side in any shape or form. Please leave that sort of stuff to the likes of Mourinho in the future.

So Pellegrini must now decide how to approach the second leg. There is an imperative to keep it tight of course once more, at least in the early stages. But goals are required, which surely merits the obvious return of Aguero, but also Nasro and Jovetic. Keep the shield in front of the back four, play Nastastic, and then pray.

Still at least the defeat proved a nice season-highlight for United fans. That and the claim that their stadium tour sold out yesterday. In times of hardship, as we well know, you take what you can….

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4 Comments
  1. Graham Ward permalink

    Thanks for this, Howard, I enjoyed reading it.
    We did our best, but it wasn’t quite enough. One goal conceded too many, let’s see how the second leg goes, but progress made this year.

  2. Sean permalink

    Liverpool have a clear run at the Premiership & Arsenal will probably out of the CL soon. City have Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham,Arsenal & United away -Chelsea only have a couple of tricky fixtures. All of City’s strength will be needed to win the Premiership and that is the highest priority

    • Marcus permalink

      Actually we have played Totenham away already , we won 5-1

  3. Great summary as usual Howard – Have been in one of those typical City related self-imposed media and replay blackouts since the game so haven’t had time to reassess the ref, but fussy he was. I also agree, I’m still not gioddy at the CL progress, I want us to start to dominate in the PL and the cups in England for a while yet.

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