Fifteen years ago Manchester United fans, celebrating the last-minute Champions League victory over Bayern Munich in Barcelona, remembered their closest rival by singing a version of City’s Blue Moon anthem with the words ‘City, you’ll never play us again’. The year before City had been relegated to the third tier of English football and the United fans’ taunt reflected the gulf between the fortunes of the two Manchester clubs.
Knowing how far their team has come since then, City fans will take delight in seeing United struggling this season under David Moyes while City are flying high and are currently favourites to win each of the English domestic trophies. City have of course been assisted by the huge cash input from owners the Abu Dhabi United Group who bought the club in 2008, and since then the team has become one of the most feared in England with success coming with an FA Cup win in 2011 followed by a league title in 2012.
The ambition for greater achievements is evident. However, if City hope to oust United as Manchester’s top club in the minds of fans around the world, they need success in Europe. City failed to get past the group stage in the last two editions of the Champions League but this season they reach the last 16 for the first time which makes the game with Barça one of the most important in their history. The Etihad stadium will be full to capacity for tomorrow’s first leg of what promises to be the tie of the round.
Kun Aguero has been definitely ruled out of tomorrow’s game and City coach Manuel Pellegrini has two other players, Nastasic and Fernandinho struggling to recover in time for the game. Nastasic’s chances look very slim but Pellegrini claimed Fernandinho had possibilities to play after training with the group today. City have missed the Brazilian midfielder and Pellegrini first used defender Martin Demichelis in Fernandinho’s role with poor results as City lost at home to Chelsea and drew 0-0 at Norwich. However, Javi Garcia returned from injury to put in a good performance during Saturday’s FA Cup victory against Chelsea and if Pellegrini doesn’t feel Fernandinho is fit enough the Spanish international is likely to play alongside Toure Yaya in a holding midfield role.
Demichelis could instead substitute Nastasic in defence though Joleon Lescott is also an option to partner Vincent Kompany. Pellegrini’s other main dilemma is Clichy or Kolarov at left back while he also needs to decide on four from Navas, Nasri, Silva, Dzeko and Negredo for the forward positions. Nasri only played half an hour at the weekend after coming back from injury but still managed a goal. His situation is similar to that of Neymar for Barça and I imagine he’ll start on the bench. This would leave Negredo as the main striker, Navas on the right, Silva in a free role and Dzeko attacking from the left.
The Barça expedition arrived in Manchester at lunchtime today with Tata Martino taking 23 players for the trip and only Isaac Cuenca and the injured Johnathan dos Santos staying behind in Barcelona. Martino also has some big decisions to make though the main one will be whether to sacrifice a goalscoring forward (Pedro or Alexis) in order to play Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas in an attempt for more control in midfield. The formation with an extra ball-player worked fine against Real Sociedad last week in the Copa del Rey semi-final but there is the danger that we will lack penetration as occurred at the same stage of the competition last season at AC Milan.
Barça will be confident after the 6-0 drubbing of Rayo Vallecano at the weekend but we would do well to remember that in the last five seasons Barça have won only three away games out of fifteen in the Champions League knockout stages, at Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Madrid in 2011 and at Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. In the last three seasons Barça have lost the first leg in the last 16 twice, the 2-0 defeat in Milan last year and a 2-1 reverse at Arsenal in 2011. However, the good news is that on both occasions Barça turned the tie round at Camp Nou.
Barça have struggled with consistency this season so we will just have to wait and see whether we get the brilliant Barça we saw in the last couple of games or the sloppier version as seen recently against Valencia or Sevilla. A spectacle seems assured as both teams have stronger attacks than defences. City have scored a total of 117 goals in all competitions this season compared to Barça’s 111.
Man City: Hart, Pantilimon, Zabaleta, Richards, Kompany, Nastasic, Lescott, Demichelis, Clichy, Kolarov, Toure Yaya, Fernandinho, Javi Garcia, Rodwell, Navas, Lopes, Silva, Nasri, Dzeko, Jovetic, Negredo.
Barça: Valdés, Pinto, Oier, Alves, Montoya, Piqué, Bartra, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano, Alba, Song, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergi Roberto, Fabregas, Pedro, Alexis, Messi, Neymar, Afellay, Tello.
Man City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Toure Yaya, Javi Garcia; Navas, Silva, Dzeko; Negredo.
Barça: Valdés; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Pedro, Messi, Iniesta.
Prediction: Man City 2 Barça 2
Date: Tuesday 18 February 2014. Kick off 8.45 pm (CET), 7.45 pm (GMT).