- Barca on the skids? Are you sure?
- Series of perilously slim margins
The prevailing narrative coming into this one, helped along by the one and only Jose Mourinho, as only he can, was of a Barcelona club on the skids. The Nou Camp bunch was vulnerable, not as evocative as Barca giants of the past and surely humbled in UEFA knockout pursuits by that harrowing train wreck last year against Bayern Munich.
Anyone buying that now?
It wasn’t dominant for Barca on Tuesday at the Etihad, not by any stretch. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) But is a 2-0 win for Barca on the road all that shocking?
Did everyone forget that this is a team still blessed with one of the game’s all-time greatest talents in Leo Messi? And Xavi isn’t getting any younger, but his ability to control possession (and therefore help control a match) remains unflinching.
Yaya Toure won his share of midfield battles, but, like his teammates, couldn’t get close to the ball over big stretches. And that’s Toure! Also known as: one of the best in the Premier League midfield game.
All that, by the way, from a team that chose to keep Brazilian star Neymar on the bench to start.
Plus, this: Barca is a team that knows how to manage Champions League knockout competition. (By contrast, City has only now learned how to navigate the group stage.)
That doesn’t mean they can stand toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich, and maybe a couple of others. Especially not until Messi finds his highest gear and has a few more “Messi” moments like the series-turner Tuesday.
But … it does mean this notion of a Barca as a fading star seems like poppycock now, doesn’t it?
It may sound odd to hear – a bit silly, even – but this one was decided on the most razor thin of margins. Yes, a 2-0 loss at home might smell like a bit of a thumping, but it was anything but.
City center back Martin Demichelis had held his own for 50-plus minutes next to Vincent Kompany – but he’s no Vincent Kompany. A moment of inattention that the good-not-great sometimes have, a desperate lunge, a red card … and that was it. That may have been the series.
Playing with 11 against Barca is hard enough; trying to arrest the taka-taka with just 10 is nearly impossible.
Later, David Silva very nearly hammered one past Victor Valdes, who had to do something he’s sometimes faulted for not doing, making the big save. That would have probably meant a 1-1 final, a result that would have felt sumptuous at that point for Manuel Pellegrini’s men.
A ball played into Barca’s goal box in the first half, the very kind that City had hoped to use its size advantage to exploit, nearly found its way into goal. That surely would have set off some nerves in the visitors.
Overall, City did quite well. Pablo Zabaleta, Kompany, Fernandinho, Silva and Toure all had games to be proud of. Kompany was particularly excellent. All of that is why City isn’t quite out of this one just yet. Odds are stacked – but this is not impossible.
Speaking of slim margins: Sergio Aguero wasn’t in Pellegrini’s lineup. City’s sharpest of sharpshooters wasn’t fit enough to play. Messi was. In the end, will that tell the tale?