Messi vs Fernandinho. Last night, there was only one winner.
Just five days ago, Manchester City were bossing the Premier League game against Everton. Yes, they would eventually fail miserably by missing two penalties, wasting multiple other chances and eventually drawing – but with 19 shots to visitors three and over 72% of possession, they were all over Toffees. But that was last weekend. Then, the Champions League came along, City went to Camp Nou and it actually turned out that they were the Everton of that game. Mascherano as a makeshift left-back didn’t matter; Jordi Alba’s early injury relapse didn’t matter; an extra midfielder for Pep’s team didn’t matter – it was a very one-sided clash. The only difference, though, was that unlike Everton, Man City didn’t have a hero goalkeeper or the audacity to park the bus for 90 minutes. It ended 0-4. It could’ve been worse if Barcelona really bothered to unleash their full potential. And it was painful to watch.
To Guardiola’s credit, he really did stuck to his guns. Without Agüero or Iheanacho upfront, he deployed all midfield quality he had and evidently instructed them to press very high up the pitch – an order that they’d follow religiously early in the game, even at cost of fouling Barcelona’s defenders. With the ball to their feet, City were mostly looking for quick breaks down the right wing, sending plenty of passes to Raheem Sterling. Unfortunately for them, the English wonderkid had a rather mediocre time last night. Also, with Mascherano played out of position and young Digne being forced to replace Alba, Barcelona’s full-backs were mostly focused on being responsible and not really running forward. This deprived Sterling and Nolito of the space to run behind they’ve hoped to find on a counterattack – and City’s passing wasn’t good enough to make their positional play either.
Nevertheless, the first 15 minutes were fairly promising. Nicolas Otamendi, already accomplished against Barcelona in past La Liga encounters, didn’t put a single wrong foot and managed to shut down Neymar’s runs successfully. Fernandinho was in his usual mould, putting some heavy pressure on Iniesta whenever it was time for Barcelona to organize their attacks. It was a huge stroke of irony that those were exactly the two players responsible for conceding the first goal. Following a cluster of tackles down the right wing, Messi bursted forward, played the through ball to Iniesta and saw it rebounding in the middle of the box. At that moment, City had three players securing that area: Bravo in the goal, Fernandinho near the penalty spot and Otamendi, right outiside the area. However: the goalie did not move; the Brazilian slipped and fell and the Argentinian stood there mortified, as Messi collected the loose ball, rounded the keeper and tapped that in. Embarrassing.
Fernandinho’s slip causes Messi to be free for another Champions League tally for him. The Lion King, 1-0 pic.twitter.com/2THqVvcdfR
— Andrew Jerell Jones (@sluggahjells) October 19, 2016
This pretty much marked the collapse of Man City’s plan. You could see it in Pep’s expressions at the sidelines: he would unleash the whole pantomime of gestures just to remind his players what they were supposed to do. It didn’t help much, though: for the next fifteen minutes, visitors’ initial intesity was non-existent and the hosts passed around as if they were in a training. Two rash tackles by Pablo Zabaleta and David Silva looked like desperate attempts to inject some vigor into their team’s play. Not that it worked out to well: the right-back only got a lecture from the referee while Silva ended up being booked and injured Piqué’s calf. Rakitić could’ve effectively ended the visitors’ misery but he missed a free, near-post header he’s been gifted after one of Barcelona’s various set pieces. At the same time, City registered their first shot after 37 minutes. Not even in the same league.
The only two decent chances Pep’s team has conjured were the results of individual skill. Nolito, normally invisible, took advantage of Piqué’s fitness problem and had a shot saved by ter Stegen. Same happened to İlkay Gündoğan, who went through past two opponents before curling a far-posted that’s been again anticipated and parried by the German goalie. Soon enough, Gündoğan also got a chance to chip his way into the glory after a smart corner play – but he missed that opportunity. So did John Stones, who had even better opening after De Bruyne’s free kick. Overall, the period between 35th and 45th minute belonged to City – and was perhaps the only part of the game when Barca looked seriously inferior. Just before the half-time whistle, Umtiti blocked De Bruyne’s shot from narrow angle and the English side had to return to their locker room without an equalizer.
Now, this was the time to either go for it or just wave the white flag. Pep had to either sub on Agüero for the disappointing Nolito or forget it, keep Kun benched for the rest of the match and cut losses by subbing off De Bruyne (who’s just recovered from the injury) and / or Sterling (who’s played more minutes than any other City player, apart from Fernandinho). Instead, he had to use one sub to get the goalkeeper, the other to replace injured Pablo Zabaleta and he finally brought in Agüero around 79th minute (when it was 0-3 down and all that the Argentinian might’ve done there was picking up an injury). This made no sense whatsoever; the visitors were in a difficult situation anyway but settling for a striker with only 10 minutes left on the clock improved exactly nothing. And why Leroy Sané never got a sniff? He just had a very promising debut against Everton…
The second half started and it quickly turned out that the English team can’t slip back on the fifth gear anymore. De Bruyne’s crosses simply weren’t finding any players in the penalty area and Busquets kept winning all tackles – even the ones he’s already lost. To make the bad worse, Claudio Bravo, the ex-Barcelona stalwart, has botched his sweeper-keeper duty and donated the ball to Luis Suárez. The subsequent shot was totally going in the back of the net so Bravo used his hands outside the penalty area and deservedly saw the red card. After the game, Guardiola defended his approach, saying that he will play with sweeper-keepers for the rest of his managerial career. Fair enough – but if this is his solution, he should at least teach them to pass loose balls sideways, rather that into the path of the centre forwards.
Claudio Bravo can only blame himself. Unless, of course, he still plays for Barcelona…
One hour into it, it was finally and irrepairably over. Under pressure, De Bruyne has made a sloppy touch, gave the ball away to Iniesta, he set up Messi with a very basic pass and the rest was a very precise, left-legged finish into the bottom-right corner. John Stones nearly copied KdB’s mistake two minutes later, but this time, Busquets did not manage to control the loose pass well enough to stir up the danger. At the other end, Gündoğan’s clever through ball to De Bruyne has given the Belgian a dream opportunity to get at least that one goal back. Ter Stegen had none of it – and soon enough, the course of the game has become a one-way traffic. Less than ten minutes later, Gündoğan went into a 50/50 on his own half, made an awful back pass which was picked up by Suárez and then tapped-in by Messi. Yet another simple goal from another simple, individual error. Are those really the future EPL champs?
The final 20 minutes were all about City attempting to pass the ball in their own half and either failing badly or barely, just barely making things work. They weren’t making any headway, though and this entire part of the game looked like a training excersise for an amateur team that somehow got to work with actual football professionals. At one point, Sterling, the supposedly new, hotshot winger, was so easily mugged by Neymar that it actually underlined the difference of class between those two. The Brazilian would miss one total sitter and one penalty but he finally got a goal for himself too – and the disaster was complete.
Where are Citizens are going from now? After blitzing through the start of the season, they’ve now been winless for the last three weeks and only a fortunate coincidence has prevented them from losing the Premier League lead. On Sunday, they’ll be hosting the in-form Southampton team – and the outcome of that match is far from being easy to predict. Even their later fixtures are looking quite uncomfortable: a League Cup derby with United, an away game at Baggies and then, a Barcelona rematch – those are already three precarious challenges to face. And it’s not like there’s much more time left to prepare for them…