Manchester City v Barcelona, Etihad Stadium, Tuesday 19.45
The north west of England is a place of beginnings and endings for FC Barcelona and some of their players. Pep Guardiola’s last, inglorious, European game as a player for the team he’d supported all his life and let to European Cup glory at Wembley in 1992 came at Anfield.
There’s this utterly superb picture of a young, exuberant Steven Gerrard (above) chasing over to Guardiola to roar triumphantly as the Catalan trooped, dejectedly off the pitch back in 2001. Out of the Uefa Cup, out of the club six weeks later.
Guardiola’s time as coach was ushered in by another ‘ending’ this time at Old Trafford when Paul Scholes (fan footage below) crashed that semi-final winning goal past Victor Valdés in United’s Champions League winning season of 2007/8.
That truly was that for Frank Rijkaard, Ronaldinho and Deco their reign as European Champions already having been rudely stripped away from them by Liverpool in 2007, just a few short months after victory over Arsenal in Paris hinted that Barcelona, with Ronaldinho the best player in the world, might be starting a golden era. Not the case.
And Andres Iniesta freely admits his brilliant volleyed goal for Spain against England at Old Trafford in 2007 was an exponential leap forward in confidence and robust self belief because, until then, La Roja viewed the hard-running, aggressive English as one of their most threatening and intimidating rivals.
Yes, it could now be the end of an era
If Tuesday night’s game against Manchester City is a defeat, and one which is the gateway to elimination in three weeks, then it will be a categorical ‘end’ to the current golden era.
Not the end for Leo Messi, Pedro, Cesc, Busquets, Iniesta and Alba as Barcelona players but a punctuation point at the end of an era which has seen the bulk of this group reach 13 knockout finals (Champions League, Copa del Rey, European SuperCup or World Club Cup) in the last ten years (more than Manchester United and Real Madrid combined).
If this group were to follow their 7-0 humiliation by Bayern Munich last season with their first elimination at this stage since 2007 it will be time for the kind of ‘re-start’ which began in summer 2008 with Guardiola’s arrival, the sale of Ronaldinho and the promotion of a clutch of young bucks.
What do the Spanish champions require to do to avoid all that happening?
One of the biggest compliments to that era of Camp Nou dominance is that a great deal of what City (and Bayern) do is simply a re-branding of Barcelona’s 2008-2012 football but with younger, bigger and more athletic players than the Catalans currently have in their squad.
Barça reboot? Barça Mark II. Call it what you will.
— Vincent Kompany (@VincentKompany) January 29, 2014
Barca vulnerable from corners
It obviously means that Tata Martino’s team will be vulnerable from corners, free kicks and open play if Vincent Kompany (above), Yaya Touré, Álvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and their ilk are allowed to compete for headers on goal.
The Johan Cruyff diktat, which was copied by Guardiola when he became coach, was:
‘Do NOT give away corners or free kicks anywhere near our own penalty area’
Can this team become that disciplined again? Switch back on the good habits which have been switched off for a couple of seasons?
The fundamental cornerstone of the ‘great’ Barcelona eras was always to create numerical superiority in midfield. Via the full backs pushing forward, via the centre half wandering as far forward with the ball as he dared, using the ‘third-man’ move, via the wingers dropping back into midfield if necessary.
Father Time waits for no man
Now, because of a drop in the efficacy of Barcelona’s pressing high up the pitch, because Father Time and his debilitating effects wait for no man.
Often the shakiness which has become apparent in Barça’s defending (the goals against stats are clear in Europe but almost unchanged domestically from Guardiola’s time) has its root in the midfield either being over-run or not adequately chasing back when possession is lost.
Martino is going to try to ‘flood’ the midfield in Manchester. Often Barcelona’s shape will look like 3-5-2 – two central defenders and one full back with one full back pushed into a middle line already staffed by Busquets, Xavi (above for Spain), Iniesta and Cesc.
“Whover has the least possession is going to suffer,” was Martino’s ominous prediction.
City deserve to be favourites
City’s left hand side, probably Samir Nasri (above), will have fun. Xavi finds it hard to press and harrass as effectively as he once did and Dani Alves loves to go for a wander upfield. The return journey is often conducted via a guilty trot while others attempt to put out the fires.
City, it seems to me, deserve to be favourites (15/8) to win this leg of the tie particularly given that since losing 1-0 to Wisla Kraków (UCL third qualifying round second leg) back in 2008 Barça have played 15 further away knockout ties in the competition proper – only winning three.
The other results comprise seven draws and six defeats. But there are distinct plus-points for Barcelona.
Martino pledged, from day one, that his training and squad rotation would be aimed at having his players fighting fit for the business end of the season. That starts now.
My tips for this game
Fabregas has never been more prolific for goals and assists, Leo Messi (above) has 10 goals and seven assists in eleven games this year and, above all, Andres Iniesta is playing with livewire fizz and energy right now.
If Barcelona take your eye then perhaps Iniesta or Jordi Alba are succulent outside bets for a goal. Another would be to look at Javier Mascherano’s tendency to be caught the wrong side, to have to lunge in… a penalty for City isn’t a remote probability (10/3 with Paddy Power).
Overall, Europe is lucky that so many club and national sides now want to emulate the brand of football which the Blaugrana exhibited so exceptionally over the last six years.
Shame if it were to end now. But at least they face the Premier League’s attempt at Barça Mk II. Sit back and soak it up.