Martin Demichelis’ 53rd-minute sending off proved Manchester City’s undoing against Barcelona on Tuesday, as Lionel Messi’s penalty and Dani Alves’ 89th-minute strike enabled the Spanish side to build a 2-0 first leg advantage.
City, while without the ball for large spells of the match, were holding their own until Demichelis received his marching orders after bringing down Messi inside the box.
The Argentine made no mistake from the spot to compound the punishment, before Alves’ incisive score moments from the finish gave Gerardo Martino’s side an extra cushion ahead of the second leg in March.
City had their half-chances, with Victor Valdes forced into a handful of moments of smart goalkeeping, but Manuel Pellegrini can only wonder what might have been without Demichelis’ foul—which, as replays showed, appeared to take place just outside the penalty area.
"By no means did we think they were superior to us," captain Vincent Kompany told ITV's live broadcast after the match. "When it was 11 vs. 11 I thought we showed them too much respect.
"They were there for the taking."
Cesc Fabregas had a different view, however; the Barcelona midfielder responding sharply after Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho suggested earlier in the week that this was the worst Blaugrana side in many years.
"We had a great result tonight," Fabregas told ITV. "We had a point to prove, and we did it very well.
"Some people were talking a bit too much before the game and now they have to shut up for a few days."
When the teams were announced it was City’s that contained more surprises, with Pellegrini opting to ditch the two striker system that he has utilised for much of the season, with David Silva playing behind Alvaro Negredo and Jesus Navas and Aleksandar Kolarov providing some width and extra defensive protection.
Martino, meanwhile, named a predictable XI—with Neymar on the bench having managed 20 minutes on his return from injury at the weekend.
In the opening stages Barcelona dominated possession—as is their trademark—but, after holding firm during that initial examination, it was actually City who created the first real openings of the game.
Silva was at the heart of both of them; the Spaniard’s perfectly-weighted through ball gave Alvaro Negredo the chance to round Javier Mascherano and Valdes before narrowly missing the target with a clipped effort from a very acute angle, before a perfect corner forced Valdes to recover desperately to prevent the ball crossing his line.
Negredo then forced Valdes into a save with an opportunistic snapshot as City continued to threaten more despite Barca’s greater time on the ball—with Demichelis increasingly impressive with his reading of the game and breaking up of play. A brief passage of inattentive play from the City backline did create a first half-chance for Barca, however, with Messi firing over with a warning shot from 20 yards.
As the game neared half-time both sides traded half-chances; Alexis Sanchez forcing one decent save from Joe Hart from range, at the other end Negredo failed to make proper contact with a couple of headed chances. A few rash tackles began to appear too, with Negredo, Sergio Busquets and Kolarov picking up cautions in quick succession.
With both sides entitled to feel reasonably content with their first-half display there were no major tactical or personnel changes at half-time, although little did either manager know that the game’s pivotal moment was just eight minutes away.
Unfortunately, it was Demichelis at the heart of it, the Argentine attempting to chase down Messi as he ran through on goal before only succeeding in bringing him down in the box. It appeared at first viewing a clear penalty (although replays suggested that contact might actually have taken place just outside the box) with the subsequent red card also unsurprising—although City perhaps also had a point that Navas had been fouled in the build-up to the goal.
With Demichelis—who, it must be pointed out, had perhaps been the best player in the game prior to that moment—off the pitch Messi stepped up to take the penalty, and he duly scored his first goal at a Premier League ground as Hart dived beyond his cool penalty down the middle.
Pellegrini immediately brought Joleon Lescott on for Kolarov to restore his back four, and Samir Nasri for Navas to change the dimensions of his midfield, but Barcelona—ahead and a man up—appeared increasingly happy to toy with their opponents, passing the ball around calmly in search of an opening to exploit.
To City’s credit they only infrequently appeared, with Alves narrowly missing the far post with a low drive after breaking in behind Gael Clichy, and Fabregas being waved for offside after running onto Andres Iniesta’s clipped ball.
Not that City were completely out of the game. Soon after coming on Nasri had a decent sight of goal before shooting straight at Pique, while Clichy squandered a great chance to threaten as his half-hearted cross from well inside the box was easily claimed by Valdes.
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With just over 15 minutes remaining both sides made attacking changes, with Edin Dzeko replacing Negredo and Neymar coming on for Alexis.
Silva forcing a fine save from Valdes after taking Pablo Zabaleta’s first-time volley on the chest before unleashing a fine effort that had Valdes diving sharply to his right to hold.
Indeed, in some ways resorting to counter-attacks seemed to play to City’s strengths a bit more, with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure trying to run from midfield when possible. They occasionally rode their luck at the other end—Fabregas erroneously waved for offside moments before slipping the ball to a team-mate for a tap-in second goal—but that transition threat may give them cause to believe they can cause an upset in the second leg in Catalonia, with Dzeko picking up where Negredo left off as a physical threat leading the line.
As the game entered the final five minutes Martino appeared to go into consolidation mode, replacing Fabregas with the more defensively-minded Sergi Roberto.
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Yet, in the last minute of the 90, Barcelona still managed to give themselves the breathing room that may prove crucial. Pique’s wide ball to Alves was quickly moved on to Neymar and, as the right-back moved inside he received the ball back, slotting the ball between Hart’s legs to double the advantage.
A one-goal deficit, even in the Nou Camp, may have been recoverable but—even with the likely return of Sergio Aguero—a two-goal disadvantage will take something special.
Perhaps sensing that, Pellegrini fumed about the referee after the game. He told Sky Sports:
Of course I have a complaint, not only for the penalty and the red card. I think in the whole match we didn't have a referee with impartiality to both teams.
He decided the game. He decided the game because it was a foul by Busquets on Navas. The referee was three metres away and he didn't blow the whistle and after that the foul from Demichelis is outside the box, it's not a penalty.
Important mistakes against a great team like Barcelona make it difficult to win.
The second leg takes place in Barcelona on Mar. 12.
Prior to that Manchester City have three games in three different competitions—they host Stoke City at home in the Premier League, before facing Sunderland in the final of the Capital One Cup. They then prepare for the Nou Camp with a FA Cup quarter-final against holders Wigan Athletic at the Etihad Stadium.
Barcelona, in contrast, have three league engagements—facing Real Sociedad (a), Almeria (h) and Real Vallodolid (a) prior to the return meeting with City.