Manchester City were the first team pulled out of the hat in the UEFA Champions League last 16 draw Monday afternoon and will play Barcelona in their first-ever appearance in the knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition. It’s a tough draw for City but one that shows just how far the club has come since the dark days of the late '90s.
It’s a return to their former club for director of football Txiki Begiristain and chief executive Ferran Soriano, both whom were brought in to try and emulate Barcelona’s blueprint for success, and of course, for midfielder Yaya Toure. It’s undoubtedly the tie of the round.
City will have to be on top of their game if they are to progress to the quarter-final, but they should not fear this Barcelona side. The days of their total domination seem to be over, with last year’s 7-0 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich, a result which didn’t flatter the Germans, unthinkable two years ago at the peak of the Pep Guardiola era.
Barcelona are a side that have incredible attacking talent—arguably the best in the world—but they do have a soft-centre at the back which, if attacked, can be exploited. City, which have scored 72 goals in all competitions this season, will surely feel confident they can score against Barcelona and will be buoyed by their impressive win in Munich during the group stages.
Vincent Kompany’s fitness will be key for City. If their captain is available to them, they have a far better chance of shutting out the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar. Scoring goals isn't City’s problem; keeping the goals out has been the issue, but the Belgian makes a huge difference to City’s solidity.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini knows Barcelona inside and out after his nine-year spell managing in La Liga, so City could not be better prepared tactically.
Much of the focus will be on Aguero vs. Messi before the match. Two of the finest players in Europe and team-mates for Argentina, Pellegrini believes Messi is one of only two players better than the City striker in world football.
In a recent press conference, Pellegrini said, “I think Kun [Aguero], after Messi and Ronaldo, is [in] the top three players in the world.” Aguero now has the perfect stage to prove his brilliance, and he must take it.
Barcelona will, quite rightly, start as strong favourites, however, City should not fear their opponents. Barcelona have a squad of exceptionally talented players and have far more experience in this competition than City, but after two years of underachievement in Europe, it's time the Blues showed the world their Champions League credentials.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.