MANCHESTER, England — When Sheikh Mansour completed his takeover of Manchester City back in 2008, he dreamed of welcoming Europe's biggest clubs to the Etihad in the Champions League on a regular basis.
It has taken time, but under Manuel Pellegrini, they have qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in the club's history and this week welcome Barcelona—one of the best club sides in world football—for the standout round of 16 tie in Europe's elite competition.
It seems Mansour's vision of turning City into one of Europe's best clubs is being realised. Roberto Mancini delivered near-constant progression, ending the club's 35-year wait for a trophy by winning the 2011 FA Cup before delivering a pulsating Premier League win in 2012, but he struggled where it really mattered to City's owner.
Any club with ambitions of being a global superpower needs to be successful in Europe. Two group-stage exits under the Italian were always going to lead to questions being asked and he paid the ultimate price when he was sacked in the summer.
This season, with renewed optimism and attacking vigour, City remain in four competitions, with this tie against Barcelona constituting the pinnacle of the Mansour era thus far.
City aren't just there to make up the numbers.
Their desire, not just to beat sides, but to devour them, has seen them obliterate some excellent Premier League teams this season. If they can impose their high-tempo pressing game on the Catalan giants, they have a real chance of getting a positive result to take over to Spain for the return leg.
Barcelona are still, quite rightly, regarded as one of the best sides in world football, but they are certainly not at the level they occupied in 2011 when Pep Guardiola's dynasty was at its peak.
There are frailties now and City must try to capitalise.
Some of their key players, such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta, are beginning to decline somewhat. Whereas they were once untouchable, they can no longer play at their very best with the same consistency that saw them sweep aside all and sundry just a few years ago.
They have frailties at the back too and City, perhaps more than some of the La Liga sides that often tend to roll over, may be able to expose their weaknesses.
However, Barcelona remain favourites, even taking into account City's improvement under Pellegrini. A couple of big recent wins have seen them return to the top of the La Liga table, with Messi and Pedro looking sharp and ruthless. They are also through to their third Copa del Rey Final in four years after beating Real Sociedad.
Their form in the last couple of weeks has been good, but the recent home defeat to Valencia and the dropped points away at Levante in January suggest a chink in the armour that City could exploit.
The big news from Pellegrini's press conference on Monday afternoon was the return to fitness of key midfielder Fernandinho "He has a chance because he is in the squad list for tomorrow. We will see tomorrow who are the 11 starters. He is in the squad list. He worked [in training] without any problem," Pellegrini said.
The Brazilian has been a huge loss to City in recent matches, and in this game probably more than any other, his energy and ability to press the opposition will be vital. Barcelona's style relies on keeping possession in the midfield, and if City lose that battle, winning the game will be difficult.
The game comes too early for Sergio Aguero, though, who may also miss out on Saturday's Premier League match at home to Stoke City.
"Aguero is not in the squad list. He is not fit for tomorrow. We will see if he can be fit on Saturday, but maybe also is difficult," said Pellegrini of his talisman.
Aguero's pace and calmness in front of goal will be missed, but in Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo, City have enough to trouble the visitors.
Asked about whether stopping Lionel Messi was uppermost in his mind, Pellegrini reiterated his desire to see City continue playing the same way they have all season:
Yes of course when you play against Barca you always must consider important things but the most important thing is to continue being the same team you see every week in Premier League.
To continue having the same style of play and the personality, but you cannot continue without thinking they have Messi and other important players. We are not just going to think about defending but what we can do with the ball. That is the most important thing.
The whole world will be watching on Tuesday for what promises the be a wonderful night of football. No doubt Mansour will afford himself a smile. His legacy continues to grow.
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.
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