Barcelona 2 Manchester City 1: Some Thoughts
So that is that – the end of City’s cup competition involvement for the season, as City unsurprisingly failed to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg. It was always asking for a near-miracle, the history books show that, but the players couldn’t have done much more. It wasn’t to be.
To watch their team in the Nou Camp in the Champions League knockout stage was what many City fans had waited a lifetime for. Being stuck up in the gods in a crumbling ground may have slightly dampened the experience, but my Facebook wall and Twitter feed suggests everyone had a rather good time. Some may never come back.
The line-up was precisely what I had hoped for. With no in-form strikers there was little point playing two upfront especially considering its failure previously against the European elite. Milner would help raise the work-rate and the harrying when out of possession and he deserved a chance after his Munich heroics. The defence picked itself, as there were no other options.
With Manuel Pellegrini on the naughty step, I am ashamed to admit I wasn’t aware of the name of our assistant manager. In fact, I’ve already forgotten it again.
City started brightly. It soon became clear they were going to threaten more than in the home leg. But Barcelona were soon looking dangerous and finding gaps. We were lucky not to concede in the period that followed.
In a nutshell, the game told us what we already knew – we are a couple of players away from competing at the highest level. There is little point lamenting the contribution of Joleon Lescott. He has performed admirably for the club and was as good as Kompany in our title-winning season, but he has never been world-class and he was always going to struggle against the likes of Messi (who wouldn’t?). I admire City’s resolve not to be ripped off in the transfer market from now on and thus to walk away from deals, but the failure to shore up our defence and find a top-quality partner for Kompany could cost us dear this season.
Lescott was woeful and wonderful. He could have been sent off quite easily for fouls, should have conceded a penalty, got his legs tied up in knots to gift Barcelona their first goal, but also recovered from the shakiest of starts to grow in the game and was excellent much of the time.
Much of the time isn’t good enough, sadly.
There can be no complaints about the end result, as both sides missed chances, but there is still a slight frustration because City got into excellent positions on many occasions during the first half, but wasted the final pass, whilst David Silva once more displayed his Achilles Heel, namely shooting. Then to frustrate further in the second half, Valdes saved excellently and Zabaleta missed a sitter. But as I said, no complaints.
Well there is one. The referee gave one of the worst performances I have witnessed in 30 years of watching the game. It would take a well-researched thesis to pick apart what he got wrong, or even to work out which side was hardest done to, suffice to say he was staggeringly bad but certainly wasn’t the reason City went out of the competition, getting decisions wrong for Barcelona early in the game that would have ended the tie as a contest, before turning his boss-eyed attention to City.
Inevitably thoughts will return to the first leg, where the tie was effectively lost. I supported the tactic of restricting Barcelona rather than being aggressive and attacking. One moment ruined that plan, but perhaps with hindsight, with Barcelona’s struggles domestically and the slight bruising of their aura, Pellegrini might regret the approach at the Etihad. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, as I tend to say in every match report.
Here’s a C & P of a paragraph from the match report of the first leg: nothing has changed:
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.
What did for City in the end was not just the deficiency in central defence, but the opposition having Messi and us having Aguero injured or semi-fit. His injuries are becoming a big concern now though. Aguero and Kompany, our two most important players, both miss too much game time, and we have suffered as a result.
This is the truly frustrating aspect of the two ties for me – we never got to see how Aguero could affect proceedings. Imagine if we had got to play Barcelona without Messi – our chances of progression would have sky-rocketed. Aguero is no Messi, but his absence has hit us hard.
As for Pablo Zabaleta, I can understand his frustration, but it wasn’t very professional getting himself off in that manner. It’s going to be a weakened team for the first Champions League game next season, with all three players who started the match one card away from a suspension booked within the first half-hour.
It’s a shame that City couldn’t have held on for a reassuring draw. That would have been very nice indeed.
But still the FA Cup exit hurts more than this ever could. I have written before about how the Champions League has never captivated me since we first qualified three years ago and I wrote after the first leg how we have to get used to playing these sort of games. This is not me being a bad loser. After ticket prices, the next thing that could turn me away from football in the modern game is the absolute acceptance that cheating is part of the game, that “winning” fouls is ok, that writhing around on the floor and trying to get opposition players sent off is all part of this sport we so love. I am not singling out particular teams, I am not claiming City are cleaner than others, but if this is European football then good riddance, give me domestic football any day – flawed and with some of the same problems, but nothing on the scale of what you can see abroad. The frustration is that, like when watching El Clasico, you are watching world-class players who have the ability to dazzle and entertain beyond your imagination, but who ultimately resort to cheating and histrionics in order to gain the upper hand. So, so frustrating, and sometimes football is little more than basketball with your feet.
And so the decision to rest players for the FA Cup game on Sunday has proved to be a fruitless exercise, something I could have told you on Saturday.
And now there is only one thing to fight for and the game last night may have unwittingly scuppered that fight too. Aguero’s loss will be felt dearly, but what could hit the club harder this weekend is the ridiculous situation of having to play Barcelona on a Wednesday night then Hull on a Saturday lunch-time. Have no doubt – it WILL be a tired performance from City that we will do well to win. It does not matter if a player is paid £10 a week or £300,000 a week, various studies have shown the human body needs three days to recover between football matches. A fluky 1-0 win will do me just fine.
Naturally I ABHOR violence, but if hypothetically there was a player right now that I’d like to hypothetically repeatedly slam a car door against his head, hypothetically in a movie-scene-way like Vinnie Jones did, then hypothetically it would be Dani Alves. Hypothetically of course.
It’s been a good week to be a United fan – your best week of the season in fact. I wonder if any of our matches will make it onto their season review DVD?