Luis Suárez scored twice as Barça earned a 1-2 victory over Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium tonight. The Uruguayan struck both his goals in a marvellous first half from Luis Enriqué’s men in which City were fortunate to keep the score down to 0-2. However, Barça couldn’t add to the advantage and City fought back with a goal from Kun Aguero. Gael Clichy’s sending off left the English team with ten men for the final twenty minutes but Barça failed to capitalize with Leo Messi missing a last-minute penalty which leaves City with a lifeline for the second leg at Camp Nou on March 18.
City coach Manuel Pellegrini was criticised after Barça’s 0-2 victory last season for his conservative approach so eyebrows were raised when his team was announced an hour before kick-off with two strikers, Dzeko and Aguero, and two wide midfielders, Nasri and Silva looking to attack the wings. It was a bold approach and City managed the first two shots of the game but Dzeko’s effort was blocked by a dominant Piqué and Milner’s free-kick was hit straight at the wall.
Luis Enrique put out his expected XI and despite City’s early shots the Barça players soon found their shape. With a lack of much pressing from the home team, Barça patiently worked the ball forward and chances started to arrive. Demichelis made a good block on Messi and Suárez fired wide after good work from Rakitic. Some of the home fans booed Suárez, recalling his past with Liverpool, but the Uruguayan would silence them shortly after. Alves took a throw near the corner flag, Messi curled a cross towards the near post which Suárez failed to reach but he did enough to make Kompany misjudge his attempted header and Suárez pounced on the loose ball, sweeping a shot past Hart and inside the far post.
Barça took even more control after the goal and Suárez had two more chances to add to his tally but he miscued one shot that hit Neymar and Hart came out quickly to block his effort after Neymar’s clever pass. City tried to respond and when they had the ball they were capable of creating danger with Dzeko heading wide from Silva’s cross. The problem for the home team is they saw very little of the ball and seemed reluctant to chase too much to retrieve it. Barça passes and passed and in the 29th minute the second goal arrived.
Rakitic worked tirelessly in midfield and he started the move with a charge forward through the inside-left position. The Croatian found Messi who skipped quickly past three challenges to open space for Alba to cross low from the left and Suárez got in front of Demichelis to poke the ball in from close range.
Barça were now in exhibition mode and poor City could do little to stop it. Neymar could have added a third but his flick over Hart’s head lacked power and Zabaleta got back to clear. Hart then had to save bravely at Messi’s feet, and in the 44th minute Alves dashed forward and mis-hit his cross over Hart’s head and against the crossbar. City showed some life with the last action of the first half but Ter Stegen dived to save Nasri’s 20 yard drive.
It was difficult to recall a better first half from Barça in the Champions League. However, the second half proved more difficult as City came out looking for a quick goal back. Fortunately, Dzeko’s heading wasn’t at its best as he sent one chance wide and another straight at Ter Stegen, then Demichelis headed another effort into the keeper’s hands. Aguero had been well controlled by the Barça central defenders but in the 56th minute he got past Mascherano before shooting narrowly wide.
Rakitic hit a couple of long-range efforts off target at the other end but there was more caution to Barça’s game now. Pellegrini brought on Fernandinho for Nasri and Bony for Dzeko and shortly after the second substition Busquets sent a risky pass towards Messi who was robbed by Clichy, Fernandinho played the forward pass for Silva who touched it off for Aguero, for once Piqué couldn’t arrive in time and Aguero finished clinically past Ter Stegen.
Luis Enrique’s reaction was to put Mathieu into defence and move Mascherano into midfield with Busquets taking Rakitic’s place. The move was undoubtedly intended to deal with City’s late push forward but then Clichy was sent off for a second bookable offence which offered Barça the chance to seal the tie before the return game. Zabaleta made a good tackle to deny Jordi Alba a golden chance, Hart stretched to tip Messi’s effort just over, then Barça’s second sub Adriano saw his shot blocked. In injury time Barça’s third sub, Pedro, sent Messi accelerating into the area and the Argentinian earned a penalty from Zabaleta’s challenge. The chance to gain an almost insurmountable 1-3 advantage was there but Hart dived to his left to parry Messi’s spotkick and from the rebound Messi’s diving header went wide of the gaping goal.
The game ended on a low note and there is definitely a feeling that we missed an opportunity to finish off City tonight. However, that should take nothing away from an impressive victory with some excellent individual performances from Messi, Suárez, Piqué, Alba and Rakitic. The game was a great response to the defeat against Malaga and will serve to get the team back on track in La Liga while also sending out a warning to the rest of Europe that Barça is a firm contender for this season’s Champions League.
Man City: Hart; Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Clichy; Nasri (Fernandinho m62), Milner, Fernando, Silva (Sagna m78); Dzeko (Bony m68), Aguero.
Barça: Ter Stegen 7; Alves 7 (Adriano m75, 7), Piqué 8.5, Mascherano 7.5, Alba 8; Rakitic 8.5 (Mathieu m71, 6.5), Busquets 8, Iniesta 7.5; Messi 9, Suárez 9, Neymar 7 (Pedro m80, 6.5).
Goals: m16 Suárez 0-1, m29 Suarez 0-2, m69 Aguero 1-2.
Yellow cards: m41 Rakitic, m45 Alves, m58 Clichy, m73 Clichy (= red), m88 Adriano, m90 Fernando.