Barça took a massive step towards the Champions League quarter-finals with a 0-2 win over Manchester City in tonight’s 1st leg of the last 16 tie. The game had been evenly balanced until the 53rd minute when Barça won a disputed penalty after Martin Demichelis brought down Leo Messi on the edge of the penalty area. The foul appeared to be marginally outside the area but Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson saw it as a penalty as well as showing Demichelis a deserved red card. Messi fired Barça in front and despite a spirited effort from the home team Dani Alves put the tie firmly in Barça’s favour with a second goal in the last minute of normal time.
There can be no mistake that Tata Martino’s plan tonight was one of contention. Pedro Rodriguez was sacrificed from the starting XI in favour of playing Iniesta as a left sided midfielder as Barça looked to hold the ball as long as possible. The plan worked fine for the first ten minutes or so as Barça passed the ball effortlessly back and forth though apart from a couple of corners there was nothing to show for it.
City coach Manuel Pellegrini also showed caution in his team selection playing left-back Kolarov as a left-winger. Fernandinho made it in time to partner Toure Yaya in a midfield pivot but early on the pair concentrated more on preventing forward passes than on competing for the ball. Barça were controlling the game easily but in the 15th minute City demonstrated that they didn’t need too much elaboration to find a route to goal when Kompany sent a long ball over the Barça defence for Negredo to chase and Mascherano needed to be quick to intervene.
City were encouraged and Toure made his first charge forward, going past Fabregas and Xavi before giving Navas the chance to cross, Busquets and Silva went for the ball which flew up in the goalmouth but Valdés was fouled as he went for the catch. The game was quickly turning in City’s favour and in the 19th minute Kompany found Silva who sent an excellent pass through to Negredo, Piqué managed to force him wide and as Valdés came out the City forward clipped the ball past Valdés and across the face of the goal but there was nobody there to finish.
Barça knew that there would always be a threat from any corners or free-kicks around the area and in this facet the possession tactics worked a treat as City were limited to just one corner kick which didn’t arrive until the 87th minute. However, in the 24rd minute Fabregas brought down Kolarov in a dangerous position on City’s left. Silva swung the ball in, Kompany won the first header and Toure and Fernandinho competed with Valdés for the ball which was allowed to bounce before Valdés recovered though the ref blew for a foul in attack.
Barça were getting pinned back and after Mascherano intercepted the next ball into the area Barça tried to pass it out of defence and Xavi got caught in possession, the ball came quickly to Negredo who fired a snap-shot from outside the area which Valdés had to be alert to stop.
The City flow slowed and Barça began to regain control. There was one dribble into the area from Iniesta but he couldn’t find space to shoot and Barça’s first shot didn’t arrive until the 31st minute after Messi played a quick one-two with Xavi on the edge of the area but then sent his right-footed effort well wide. City’s keeper Joe Hart was finally tested a minute later when Xavi let fly from 25 yards but he dived comfortably to his right to parry.
Barça’s problem was that with Messi also dropping back, Alexis Sanchez was essentially the only real forward and he had little luck against Clichy or against the central defenders when he ran inside. Messi was also thwarted on the occasions he tried playing further forward so there was very little penetration. City threatened briefly again with three crosses towards Negredo near the end of the first half but Barça showed good concentration and Mascherano and Alves proved that if you get in the right position you can do enough to put a taller player off his header.
Half-time arrived and the entertainment was minimal for those who were hoping for a goalfest. City had had the slightly better chances but the home team’s 27% ball possession demonstrated they had been severely limited by Barça’s tactics. Memories came back of last season’s game at Milan when Barça played a similar cautious approach (the only difference in the line-up tonight was Mascherano and Alexis instead of Puyol and Pedro in Milan) and held the game at 0-0 until Kevin Prince Boateng scored a controversial and somewhat fortunate goal in the 56th minute to put Milan on the road to a 2-0 win. A similar storyline was always on the cards tonight as the second half began in a similar cautious manner. However, in the 53rd minute referee Eriksson first waved play on as City appealed for a possible foul on Navas, Busquets won possession and the ball came forward to Iniesta on the left who was quick to send a glorious ball through for Messi. Demichelis was never going to catch Messi legally but he tried to time his challenge before his compatriot reached the box. It was a very tight call and at great speed so Messi obviously fell well into the area. The sending off was totally correct but Demichelis paid a heavier price for his cynical challenge when Eriksson pointed to the spot and Messi showed a cool head to send his penalty straight down the middle as Hart dived spectacularly out of the way.
City looked seriously rattled after the goal and Pellegrini made a quick double substitution with Lescott and Nasri replacing Kolarov and Navas. Nasri almost made an immediate impact after a swift City counter but after playing a 1-2 with Negredo the substitute’s shot was blocked by Piqué.
Barça continued with the game-plan of keeping the ball patiently though Alves began to find more opportunities to push forward. In the 67th minute the Brazilian crossed low to Xavi who swept his shot over the bar from 18 yards, then a minute later he played an excellent one-two with Alexis and burst into the area but with Hart to beat from an angle he fired his low shot narrowly wide of the far post.
However, a minute later neither Alves nor Alexis tracked Clichy’s forward run and the City full-back was allowed to enter the area before slicing his cross straight at Valdés. Martino made his first substitution, bringing on Neymar for Alexis, as Pellegrini made his final move, replacing Negredo with Dzeko.
City knew that despite the numerical disadvantage they had the chance to grab an equalizer if they got players forward. In the 76th minute right-back Zabaleta pushed up to receive a long cross from the left with a magnificent cushioned volley into Silva who chested the ball down and unleashed a tremendous volley forcing Valdés into the save of the night diving to his right.
City inevitably left a few gaps at the back and Piqué was unlucky to have a goal ruled out for an inexistant offside given against Fabregas. Then at the other end Valdés made another good stop from Dzeko but this time the referee blew for an early push from the City sub on Piqué.
City finally won a corner after Valdés had to stretch to touch Silva’s dangerous cross towards Dzeko, but when Silva sent in the corner it failed to find any of City’s big men. However, City kept Barça pinned back for a couple of minutes in one final push for an equalizer but when Barça broke out Piqué found Alves who exchanged quick passes with Neymar and this time as Hart came out to narrow the angle Alves slipped the ball through the keeper’s legs for Barça’s second.
Despite the excellent scoreline we should not get too carried away by this performance. Yes, we frustrated City with our passing game, which for Barça is surely the best way of playing defensively as it seriously limits the opponents goal chances, but there are risks to this formation as we also see our own attempts on goal reduced, and in a tie of only 180 minutes playing so cautiously runs the risk of the being undone by a stroke of bad luck. Fortunately tonight the luck went our way but some credit is due for the battles won in key areas. Valdés was solid despite the scare with the early free-kick into the box, Piqué and Mascherano had one of their better games together and they generally did a good job keeping Negredo quiet, while Alba did a pretty good job to neutralize Navas even though that meant he didn’t get forward himself too often. The midfield with Xavi, Fabregas and Iniesta got the better of a disappointing Toure and Fernandinho, and while Messi had a reasonably quiet game, when given the chance to expose Demichelis’s lack of speed, he did it with devastating consequences for City. Busquets had the difficult job of trying to tame the dangerous Silva and he didn’t do too badly, though it has to be said that Alexis and Alves, despite his goal, were disappointing.
The victory means we can concentrate firmly on La Liga until the return in three weeks which is excellent news. We are going to need to engineer a victory against Real Sociedad at Anoeta this weekend to keep hold of top spot so there is no letting up. At least we now have a very strong possibility of a Champions League quarter-final to look forward to as well as the Copa del Rey final. It looks like being another exciting spring.
Man City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Toure Yaya, Fernandinho; Navas (Nasri m58), Silva, Kolarov (Lescott m57); Negredo (Dzeko m74).
Barça: Valdés 7; Alves 6, Piqué 7.5, Mascherano 7, Alba 6.5; Xavi 6.5, Busquets 6.5, Fabregas 6.5 (Sergi Roberto m86, –) Iniesta 7; Alexis 5.5 (Neymar m74, 6), Messi 7.
Goals: m54 Messi (pen) 0-1, m90 Alves 0-2.
Yellow cards: m23 Alves, m28 Negredo, m37 Kolarov, m76 Mascherano.
Red card: m53 Demichelis