Triumphant: Tevez carries tattoos but also leaves scars on other teams.
It happened on June 26, 2013. After three years, eleven months and twelve days of not-so-loyal service to Manchester City, Carlos Tevez, then 29-years old striker, has left the club and headed for Italy. On a first glance, that was an understandable piece of business by The Citizens. After all, Tevez, who’s been approaching the precarious age of thirty, was involved in a ridiculous argument following his supposed refusal to come as a substitute in a game against Bayern Munich. After following that up with a suspension and overall disappointing 2011-12 season, the Argentinian quickly joined the list of players MC wanted to get rid of; especially since The Citizens badly needed to free up the £200,000 worth of wages their striker was receiving near the end of his spell in Manchester. Tevez was done in England; the club had enough of his temper and his inability to speak rudimentary English despite living in UK for more than five years. The team was investing in Sergio Agüero instead: five years younger, one centimetre shorter and infinitely more cultured Carlitos’ compatriot who seemed to be getting better and better with every appearance for City. Letting go of Kun’s older version seemed like a good idea.
Exactly 630 days later, the logic surrounding that move lies in smoldering ruins. Carlitos, now 31 and “well past his prime”, has just scored twice on Signal Iduna Park in Dortmund, decisively bringing Juventus into the Champions League semifinal and adding his 22nd and 23rd goal of the season to his more than outstanding performance charts. Unlike two weeks earlier, those weren’t tap-ins: he had to skilfully strike the ball from the distance first and bury it from quite a range on a second occasion; and all that was supplemented with his good assist to Álvaro Morata. Just as he did that, 1200 kilometres south from Dortmund, the man who was supposed to outperform Tevez for Manchester City, the man whom the staff from Ettihad chosen as their main offensive weapon, was struggling to create any danger in front of Barcelona’s goal. Agüero truly, fully and inevitably bottled it; anytime he was provided with a decent pass, he would run alone on Barca’s defenders and get dispossessed. His cooperation with Silva and Nasri was second-rate at best; his decision-making wasn’t there. When it came to converting a penalty that might’ve kept MCs dream alive, he’s made a dreadful effort that was calmly parried by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. And thus, The Citizens got knocked out.
If only it was just that one game! But no: the statistics confirm the existing problem further. By now, Tevez has scored 23 times and provided 8 assists in his 35 appearances this season – excluding friendlies. At the same time, injury-prone Agüero has netted 23 goals and 10 assists. So, in fact, the successor has turned out to be almost exactly the same caliber of a player as his five-years older predecessor still remains to be. The only difference in favour of Agüero is his total playtime; he’s registered roughly five hours of footballing less than his Juventus fellow and that’s mainly due to Kun’s minor fitness problems. But doesn’t it just mean that Tevez is 300 minutes richer with the experience of playing alongside his partners, who in turn had more time to gel with his style of play? Undoubtedly, yes. Deployed much deeper than his Man City compatriot, he’s been able to run at the opposition’s defences exactly as he did in Juventus’ recent 4-1 washout of A.C. Milan – timing his sprints perfectly and getting at the end of the through balls to put it away. Tevez’s dynamism is superbly complemented by Massimo Allegri’s choice to stick with the 4-3-1-2 formation, where his star striker has various options to avoid marking while Álvaro Morata lures the defenders away to create space.
At the same time, Agüero struggles to make an impact. His usual form curve has brighter, more spectacular peaks than Tevez’s – however, at the same time, the dips appear to be much more severe too. Obviously, the dreaded injuries are critical factor here: for instance, after sustaining a blow to his knee in December against Everton, City’s number 16 has spent over two months and participated in six games before he managed to score a goal again. Now, it seems that after a decent run of form in February, he’s fighting an uphill battle again; two goalless appearances against relegation opponents in Premier League and then, an utterly disappointing rematch to Barcelona. Manuel Pellegrini has tried few different ideas: he played his star striker alongside Wilfied Bony versus Leicester, then with Edin Džeko in Burnley only to finally use him as a lone striker at Camp Nou. Nothing worked out well: Kun was relatively the best when teamed up with the Bosnian he’s been playing alongside for some time already, but either way, the goals wouldn’t come when they were needed. And no wonder that being the confidence player he is, Sergio has translated two of his awful performances into another one – this time in Champions League.
Defeated: Kun missed all of his chances this time.
To be fair to him, this time it was his boss’ responsibility to know better – to learn the lesson that was already given to him in a previous game against Barcelona. Manchester City right now is the team that has severe problems with stringing the passes together, especially under pressure. We’ve seen them playing basic ball over the top style football already in November, and it was against Queens Park Rangers – yet another team that’s unlikely to stay up this season. Nothing wrong with that style: the primitive approach can be actually quite successful against highly sophisticated sides, as Chelsea once proved with Barcelona. However, what you need in such is athleticism, strong mentality and an outstanding work rate from your striker – or strikers, if you decide to play two of them. 173 cm tall Agüero and 173 tall David Silva behind him cannot never, ever provide such qualities and their strengths – like pace or acceleration – become useless when the ball is randomly cleared forward in the state of panic, as it was many times at Camp Nou yesterday. Furthermore, the whole MC team was sitting too deep, creating too much of a distance between their formations. No – this time, the individual quality upfront could not salvage anything from a disaster this big.
Compared to The Citizens, Juventus was in a different galaxy of tactical ability. Once one goal was in their pocket and Paul Pogba had to leave the pitch due to a hamstring twist he suffered in a clash with Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Zebrette had 99 reasons to exercise extreme caution – and they did. Pogba’s replacement, Andrea Barzagli has basically spent his entire game moving inside and out of a four-man defensive line and frequently contributing to the creation of an impenetrable five-man wall Dortmund had no answer to. The visitors allowed Borussia to pass the ball at leisure when it was still away from the most dangerous zones in front of Juve’s penalty area. Asking Dortmund what they’re up to, Allegri’s players got exposed only once on a counterattack – when Marchisio’s corner ended with a break and a great tackle from Chiellini dispelled the danger. Other than that one moment, it was them who attacked with pace whenever the chance came along. As it turned out: without their wing-back Piszczek, who’s been always pushing far forward, Dortmund has severe issues with keeping their offside trap discipline. Sokratis has messed up that duty at least three times – and finally, more conceded goals had to creep in.
The same thing pretty much happened at Camp Nou. It seemed impossible for Agüero & Co. to control the damage that’s been constantly done to them; no team in the world could limit the number of problems to zero against Barcelona playing this well. Bakary Sagna had a nightmare when confronted with Jordi Alba’s runs while Martin Demichelis, Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho constantly arrived late to make crucial challenges when they were needed the most. Blaugrana was toying with their opponents long before the flow of the game could be explained by the exhaustion of players: it was a domination much more evident, much more painful than the one I once described when Catalans faced Rayo Vallecano. And it would’ve easily, easily ended with a 5-0 sweep if not for a one man. Joe Hart, the player who used to be the weak link in Man City’s lineup couple times in the past, this time had the best game of football in his career. It’s not an exaggeration: he’s managed to save at least six one-on-one chances, including a miraculous punch from the closest of distances. He was a lone diamond in the rough – and as it usually happens to goalkeepers, he had to leave Spain bitter, as his efforts were rewarded with a loss anyway.
Hart had a hell of a challenge to face. While one of the Argentinian muchachos has been suffering and the other excelled elsewhere, there was also the third one out there to make the Wednesday night complete. Messi. Everything about him was already said; the touch, the ability to dribble, the balance, the ingenuity – everything. This time, however, Leo was more involved than he usually is: he dropped as deep as to the middle line of the pitch only to destroy opponent after opponent, preferably by nutmegging them. If this was his usual day, he would’ve been on a hat-trick half an hour before the final whistle. Things turned out differently: Messi was generous enough to provide Neymar and Suarez with two great chances for each of them before he started taking shots for himself. Too late: by the time he did, Hart was already on a rampage, stopping shots and sweeping balls from his area faultlessly. Even when the game opened completely and both sides started to create a must-score dangers for themselves, Leo could not find his goalscoring mojo. After being stopped two times in eye-to-eye meetings with MC goalie, he had to bury it from a rebound chance late in the game. But nope – he didn’t. Hart clearly has become invincible.
But regardless of Hart’s splendid play, yesterday the Argentinian trio was reduced to a duo. Messi still remains beyond the comparisions with the other muchachos, just as he’s beyond any other player on the planet: last night, he accumulated no less than 120 touches on the ball, along with 10 dribbles, 8 shots, 5 key passes, 3 nutmegs and 1 assist. Nobody can touch that level of performance now; nobody wishes to face him in the next round either – not even the fearless, gutsy enfant terrible Tevez. And that’s exactly why we all should be hoping for Barcelona vs Juventus – because the two hardest-working strikers in Champions League would create an unforgettable clash if faced against each other – just as their teams would constitute a fierce rivalry if they were drawn against each other. Carlitos, who’s been considered to have severe ‘compatibility issues’ with Leo when the two used to play together for Argentinian national team, undoubtedly has something to prove there before his long career comes to an end. As for Messi, so far, he has never scored a goal against Gianluigi Buffon and he would probably love to change that. Will he? If there’s going to be a chance, we will know about it tomorrow. Nyon, Switzerland, 20th of March 2015, 12:00 CET – let the draw begin!