Competitive fixtures between Man City and Barcelona are like London buses: we’ve been waiting ages to see two of best teams in the world go head to head, and now we get two fixtures at once.
City’s first venture into the last 16 of the Champions League brings them to their first competitive clash with the La Liga leaders, and it promises to be a tasty two legs as both are keen to add the big European conquest to what they hope will be domestic success this season.
The usual duopoly in Spain has dissolved with the fine form of Real Madrid’s rivals Atletico, but neither have been able to beat Barca to top spot at the moment. Gerardo Martino’s men are edging their rivals on goal difference in what promises to be a very interesting title race.
City’s own title race is just as tight; four points separate the top four, with City able to go level with table-topping Chelsea should they win their game in hand. Both teams have been in fine form, making the meeting between the two even more mouthwatering.
If you’re a team looking for success, then Barcelona aren’t a bad side to model yourself on. Man City’s focus on ball retention and quick breaks from one end to the field to the other isn't too dissimilar to that of Tuesday’s opposition and Pellegrini has been able to employ these tactics to great, even devastating, effect more often than not this season.
Possession allows control and that was evident from the group stages; City won five of the six and even came from behind to beat Bayern, seeing off virtually everyone with pacy attacks that made the most of their possession. Barcelona also topped their group with relative ease, finishing four points clear of second placed AC Milan, and have the best averages for possession and passes accuracy in Europe this season.
False Nine v Out-and-Out Nine
In an era where true ‘Number Nines’ and strike partnerships are a dying breed, the Premier League has seen some great paired work up top and it questions whether the ‘False Nine’ has really replaced the old ways. Robbie Savage claimed that City new boy Alvaro Negredo is ‘the nearest thing to an old fashioned number nine the Premier League has had since Shearer’ and it’s clear why he has received such high praise this season; nicknamed ‘The Beast’, the former Sevilla man has the strength, stature, and shooting ability to fulfill the traditional role to great effect, and in Aguero he has a more than adequate partner.
The duo have ripped up Premier League defences this season and the absence of Aguero through injury will be a big miss in the first leg.
His Argentine compatriot, Lionel Messi, has fortunately returned from injury in enough time to rediscover his fantastic form and get himself amongst the goals ahead of the trip to the Etihad.
Amongst the best in the world, Messi spearheads a flair-filled South American triumvirate (including Alexis Sanchez and the returning Neymar) in leading Barca’s line but is probably the best ‘False Nine’ in the business. He gets the goals but, through dropping deep, has chipped in with eight assist from fifteen starts in La Liga this season. Who knows which system is better, but both have been deadly so far this season.
Key Battle: Toure v Busquets
There are mini battles all over the pitch- Spanish duo Negredo and Navas up against international team mates Alba and Pique, Messi against Zabaleta, Silva, Xavi and Iniesta competing in the middle of the park- but the big match up has got to be between the returning Yaya Toure and the man who replaced him, Sergio Busquets.
City’s Ivorian midfielder will put the game before himself, but at the same time his individual brilliance could be exactly what the home side need to rob Barca of a place in the quarter finals. The midfield steamroller has the ability to turn defence into attack in a single, explosive run and could be crucial if City intend to hit on the counter.
He’s also a deadly free-kick taker, an attribute that could be helpful should Barcelona bring down City’s big units outside the box.
Sergio Busquets stepped into the gap left by Toure and was quick to establish himself as a Barcelona and Spain regular; in truth, both players have flourished since the move and it’ll be interesting to see how play develops when they meet.
Though Toure has adapted his game to literally become a ‘Toure de Force’ at the heart of City’s midfield, Busquets sees out his duties as the defensive lynchpin behind Barcelona’s creative players with complete professionalism.
As Toure has developed into a deadly attacking threat and, some would argue, sacrificed the defensive side of his game, Busquets has fully grown into the role Barca need him to fill and keeps things tight at the back while Messi and co. get the credit going forward.
City may be limited to attacking on the counter, and it will be Toure that engineers the transition from defence to attack as he looks to get one over his former club. Busquets will be the man charged with keeping him at bay, and it’ll be interesting to see how he copes with that unenviable task.
Regardless of the outcome, the game at the Etihad promises to be a mouthwatering encounter. City’s mantra has pretty much been ‘you score five, we score six’ and that alone promises a goal-filled game, but Pellegrini will be wary of the importance of denying Barcelona an away goal.
Fernandinho’s return from injury will be key to breaking up play in the middle and trying to stifle Barcelona’s creativity, and the hosts may resort to hitting on the counter in order to maximise chances of a clean sheet.
But attempts to soak but Barcelona pressure rarely profits; allowing the world’s best players to keep the ball is almost going to guarantee failure. Right-back Pablo Zabaleta has insisted that City won’t concede their aggressive, attacking style and probably the best way to stop Barca is to attack them and not let them pass you into submission.
Pellegrini certainly has the players to do that, and his team are strong at the Etihad; they’ve scored 74 goals in just 20 games at home and will be looking to put that firepower to good use against Martino’s men.
Both teams will probably get a goal; City have averaged three a game in the Champions League so far with Barcelona not far behind with 16 in 6 games. Hopefully lots of goals and lots of great football; this should be Champions League football at its best.
Manchester City 2-2 Barcelona
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