What a different tone this preview would have if Manchester City had not finally cracked Jose Mourinho's code in the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Manchester City 2-0 Chelsea did nothing to pull back the six Premier League points the Londoners took from City this season. It did not draw City any closer to catching Chelsea or Arsenal in the Premier League.
It guaranteed City nothing by way of silver, as three more hurdles must be cleared before the FA Cup is won.
Still, can you imagine how the headlines would have read in the tabloids if City boss Manuel Pellegrini had his lunch stolen by Mourinho again?
A third loss to Chelsea would have left City winless in February and reeling. What hope would anyone have had for City against mighty Barcelona in Champions League play?
Just one win really can make all the difference.
This is not to suggest that City are now going to steamroll Barcelona or even win the match narrowly. Oddschecker.com has Barcelona as a very slight favorite to win at the Etihad (6/4 as against 19/10 for City).
But the relief and belief the Citizens came away with were neatly encapsulated in Alvaro Negredo's Twitter remarks after the win over Chelsea:
Which leads us nicely into the new big question for Pellegrini—which XI will he pick to take on Barcelona?
Pellegrini is very likely to be without star striker Sergio Aguero and invaluable midfielder Fernandinho for this match.
Per David McDonnell of the Mirror, Pellegrini "will give Fernandinho until after training today to prove his fitness, while admitting Aguero has only an outside chance of being fit for the first leg of the last 16 tie."
Aside from the availability of those two, Pellegrini must answer the following questions for himself and his team:
- Is Samir Nasri now fit enough to run for 90 minutes? If not, should Nasri start anyway?
- Will Pellegrini break up the budding partnership of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic to start Alvaro Negredo?
- Has Pellegrini finally fallen out of love with Martin Demichelis, or will the Argentine slot right back in next to Vincent Kompany?
If you take Pellegrini at his word, Aguero will not even make the team sheet. “It’s my opinion that for Aguero it’s very difficult for him to play,” said Pellegrini to McDonnell. Sending Fernandinho out at less than full health against a dangerous side like Barcelona would be a very bad idea.
The projected City XI below suggests what the answers to those other questions above might be.
City's predicted XI against Barcelona: Joe Hart; Gael Clichy, Vincent Kompany, Martin Demichelis, Pablo Zabaleta; Samir Nasri, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Jesus Navas; Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic.