A penalty from Lionel Messi and a late goal from Dani Alves granted Barcelona the advantage in their Champions League last 16 tie at the Etihad. The match was even and well-contested but a Martin Demichelis red card on the 52nd minute handed the initiative to Tata Martino’s men and it was an uphill struggle for the home side from that point onwards. The away goals rule means City will have to score twice at the Camp Nou in three weeks time to force extra time, although if any team are capable of doing so it is probably City, whose formidable attack could be bolstered by the return of Sergio Agüero.
Both sides went into the match on the back of impressive victories, with City knocking Chelsea and José Mourinho – who had branded Barça “the worst Barcelona of many, many years” – out of the FA Cup and the Catalans putting six past minnows Rayo Vallecano. They had won 14 of their last 18 in all competitions but only one of their last last eight Champions League knockout games, giving City the impetus to try and take the win on home soil.
As the teams walked out to be greeted by a card display of the trophy they were battling for, City fans would have been delighted to see Neymar confined to the bench following his stunning strike against Rayo, but with an eerie sense of ‘here we go again’ upon seeing Demichelis’ name on the team-sheet after the experienced Argentine was so comprehensively torn apart by Chelsea in the Premier League.
Barça monopolized the possession as expected early on, and although they failed to create a clear cut opportunity, City were a little hurried trying to get the ball forward, meaning the visitors quickly found themselves back on the ball. As against Chelsea on Saturday, City’s defensive core of Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany set the tone with some robust early challenges, and there was clear discontent from the home fans about referee Jonas Eriksson’s perceived eagerness to blow the whistle.
After an uneasy start, City began to come into the game with Yaya Touré embarking on a surging run through Barça’s fluid three-man midfield and Álvaro Negredo taking the ball just too far past goalkeeper Víctor Valdés under pressure from Gerard Piqué. ‘The Beast’ has been prolific since joining Manuel Pellegrini’s men and was showing his size and athleticism to be a real asset against Barça’s often flaky back line. Dani Alves was booked after only 20 minutes for persistent fouling on Aleksandr Kolarov and Jesús Navas, typifying a slightly tetchy opening half hour.
City’s Spanish contingent was proving key against the La Liga champions, with almost all of their moves centered around Negredo and coming through Navas and the typically impressive David Silva. Their aerial threat nearly came to fruition after 25 minutes, with Silva’s teasing free kick from the left wing causing Valdés problems before he fell on the ball at the second attempt. Although City were unable to bundle the ball over the line, they nearly succeeded in forcing the keeper into his own net.
However, for all their pressure, City frequently found themselves on the back foot and almost exclusively without the ball, and they were unable to make their clearances stick. The ball just kept coming back into their area and they were nearly made to pay by Andrés Iniesta and his partner in crime Xavi, who stung Joe Hart’s fingertips from range after being given too much space on the edge of the area.
Barça were also denied a penalty, as the ball struck the arm of the leaping Gaël Clichy; it came under the category of ‘seen them given,’ but it would have been harsh on the Frenchman who had his arms close to his body and wasn’t looking at the ball. The passion and growing frustration of City captain Kompany was plain for all to see as he let out an exasperated wail having seen the referee once again pull play back for a fairly standard shoulder barge on Messi. Luckily for the big Belgian, the resulting free kick was straight into the wall.
The first half petered to a close but the second burst into life, and a better ball from Kolarov would have seen Negredo through on goal – fortunately for the Spaniards, it was just behind the imposing striker. It would prove to be an expensive miss as the game’s first defining moment came just five minutes later. Navas over-exaggerated his fall as City threatened to break and Barça countered superbly, sending Messi racing through on goal.
Demichelis desperately tried to make up the ground but succeeded only in tripping his countryman on the line of the penalty area. Messi got up to take the penalty and waited for Hart to dive before coolly stroking the ball down the center of the goal. Demichelis was off, and City were now firmly on the back foot having been arguably the better side since the opening ten minutes.
The Catalans sensed blood and continued to press forwards with the freedom afforded to them by the extra man. Xavi, Piqué and Alves all had half-chances but to their credit, City continued to make increasingly threatening chances of their own. Substitute Edin Džeko was making his presence felt and nearly scored on two occasions, but he was cutting a somewhat isolated figure up front. More often than not he won his header from a defender’s clearance, but nobody ran on to the ball and it was given away. Piqué was denied a goal as Cesc Fábregas was incorrectly ruled offside from Xavi’s delicious dummied pass, but eventually their dominance showed in the dying moments.
Following a prolonged spell of City pressure, the defense switched off for the second time in the match and were punished just as they were the first. Dani Alves was played in by Neymar, the Brazilian who had been brought off the bench, and the marauding right back slotted the ball through Hart’s legs with ease. A full-time scoreline of 0-2 was less than City deserved following a solid performance, with travelling fans having to hope that they can show more of their early season attacking vigor. For now, at least, Barça’s passage to the quarter-finals seems all but secured.