We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Manchester City are now into their sixth Champions League campaign, and yet the story largely remains the same.
Perhaps inexperience – and at times the (bad) luck of the draw – could explain their struggles in the first couple of seasons. Since then, there have been times when the players have been to blame, occasions when the manager has been to blame and, bizarrely, instances when even the supporters have been blamed.
But on Wednesday night, City arrived at the Camp Nou with the squad and manager to match Barcelona, and for periods they did just that. This was an at times uncharacteristically sloppy Barcelona side which was there for the taking, certainly in the first half. But the Premier League’s best team conspired to make themselves look like European novices as they were ultimately beaten 4-0.
Pep Guardiola had taken the bold step of leaving Sergio Aguero on the bench, instead opting for Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine in an attempt to try see more of the ball. And the former Barcelona maestro will have been pleased by his side’s opening, with the movement of De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling and Nolito causing the hosts problems.
City were boosted early as Jordi Alba departed due to injury, and with Gerard Pique also unfit and looking sluggish, and Javier Mascherano having moments of typical rashness operating out of position at right-back, Guardiola must have been growing in confidence. At least he would have been until he got to experience the kind of feeling which Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini will know all too well.
First Aleksandar Kolarov was not strong enough in a tackle by the touchline, then when Fernandinho had seemingly sniffed out the danger, the Brazilian slipped. Even so, four City players failed to react in time, allowing Lionel Messi to dance past Claudio Bravo and put the home side ahead.
For the next 20 minutes, City then retreated into themselves, but Guardiola will once again have been encouraged by their rally at the end of the first half, as Nolito, Ilkay Gundogan and John Stones all had attempts at goal – the latter of whom really should have scored.
Barcelona 1-0 Man City HT:
Pass accuracy: 78%-79%
Chances created: 3-3
Messi’s goal the difference. pic.twitter.com/wcfG8qSDQl
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 19, 2016
The half-time statistics certainly hinted that Barcelona were off the pace. Messi had completed only 44.4% of his passes. Neymar had made only nine, with an accuracy of only 55.6%. Luis Suarez, meanwhile, had been restricted to just 19 touches. Barca’s three biggest threats were all struggling in one way of another.
With the hosts having already used two of their substitutes and Guardiola still with the Aguero trump card to play, City will rarely have a better opportunity to come away from Catalonia with a result. But ultimately it was another mistake which cost them, and further errors which compounded their woes.
Goalkeeper Bravo can ill-afford to make such glaring mistakes given the scrutiny on Guardiola’s decision to ship out Joe Hart, and while the Chilean’s decision to rush outside of his area to the ball was justifiable, his execution in taking control of the situation was lamentable, badly letting down a manager who has placed so much faith in his ability.
From the moment Bravo was given his marching orders for handling Suarez’s attempted lob outside of the box, the game was as good as over. Barcelona may have been sluggish in the first half, but when they smell blood they show no mercy in going in for the kill.
4 – Man City have had a player sent off in four of their five previous Champions League meetings with Barcelona. Fiery.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 19, 2016
City not so much as continued to shoot themselves in the foot, but rather aim a blunderbuss at their own knee caps, allowing Messi to complete his hat-trick with more sloppy play, before being given the runaround by Neymar for goal number four.
If anything this was actually more encouraging than the 1-0 defeat on aggregate to Real Madrid in last season’s semi-finals – two matches in which City showed no ambition and were frighteningly timid. The method is there now, but there is still too much madness.
In Guardiola they have one of football’s great teachers as manager. It’s about time they started to learn their lessons.