Direct Barcelona best Manchester City again in Champions League
Manchester City move out to 50/1 outsiders with Coral (from 20/1) to lift the Champions League this term, and are massively odds-on at 1/14 to fall once again at the first knockout hurdle, after Barcelona beat them 2-1 in another last 16 first leg.
Two Luis Suarez goals inside half an hour left Manuel Pellegrini’s men on the brink already, but Sergio Aguero pulled one back with 20 minutes left and Joe Hart’s penalty save from Lionel Messi gives the Premier League champions a slim chance.
Critics of City shall say their Chilean manager Pellegrini was too open in his tactical approach by playing two up top. While this undoubtedly played into Barca’s hands, Luis Enrique has evolved the Catalan giants beyond tiki-taka.
Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic looked for front three Messi, Neymar and Suarez very early, and this directness is a definite departure from patient, probing, possession-based football everyone has come to associate with the Nou Camp club.
There was not better evidence of this than Suarez’s opener after 15 minutes. Dani Alves and Messi exchanged passes following a simple throw-in, and City skipper Vincent Kompany failed to cut out the Argentine maestro’s cross; an error which last term’s leading Premier League marksman punished clinically.
No, it’s not a misprint. Barcelona crossed the ball into the box. No narrow, mind-numbing working of an opening in the area by passing City to death. On half an hour it was Kompany at fault again, as Suarez slid in to finish a superb team move.
Messi again provided guileful industry, drifting across the Etihad turf to find willing runner Jordi Alba, up from left back, and his cutback was met by ex-Liverpool striker Suarez.
It could have been much worse for City, but Hart saw Alves’ chip clip the crossbar. This came before the hosts finally had a shot in anger through Samir Nasri, but Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen saved.
One hint of Catalan vulnerability looked to be corners after the break. Edin Dzeko’s aerial presence posed the visitors problems with David Silva deliveries either finding him direct or via a Komapny flick-on, but these dropped off target or were stopped by Ter Stegen.
Barcelona centre backs Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique had to be on hand to block respective efforts from Nasri and Aguero, while the Argentine also curled just wide when set up by Silva.
This key link-up prove fruitful for City, though, when substitute Fernandinho’s through-ball found the Spaniard. Silva’s clever flick allowed Aguero to nip in ahead of visiting defenders and fire home.
Any momentum Pellegrini saw his charges build up was checked, however, by Gael Clichy’s dismissal for a second booking 15 minutes from time. These were silly tackles, and City should expect better from a seasoned pro like the French full back.
Pablo Zabaleta’s stoppage time lunge on compatriot Messi resulted in a penalty award to Barca, but Hart made a superb save to keep it out. An appalling headed rebound effort from the Argentina captain sailed harmlessly wide to leave it 2-1.
With City 11/2 outsiders to win in the Nou Camp in the second leg, it is a big ask with only Villarreal scoring two away goals there all season, and that in a 3-2 loss. Yaya Toure’s return from suspension will have to inspire a big European night in March.