A comfortable victory. Two away goals. So far, so good.
On paper, this looks like a standard Champions League first leg victory for Barcelona.
Plenty of possession, a bit of probing and eventually Messi found a gap.
The Argentine raced towards the penalty area, like so many times before. He was rudely chopped down—again, something he’s accustomed to.
Out came the red card. Off went Martin Demichelis. Penalty to Barca. Standard.
City supporters were arguing that foul occurred outside the area, but with a shake of their heads, the Blaugrana faithful dismissed the claim, saying the Argentine defender would have seen red anyway. And with 10 men, what chance did City have?
The second goal was tidy too, just as Tata Martino would have dreamed it. The substitute, Neymar, into Dani Alves, the finish tucked through Joe Hart’s legs. Easy.
That was it, the game was over. It had been a formality. Just as many Cules had predicted.
Except if Barcelona buy that version of events, they are setting themselves up for a fall.
With 10 men, City worked hard and did well. There were chances; David Silva’s low strike was well fielded by Valdes.
Then Edin Dzeko shrugged off Pique without much fuss, took a long ball down well but fired his shot straight at the onrushing Barcelona goalkeeper.
If that had gone in, the score would be 1-1, and the second leg would have had a very different complexion.
As far as partisan football purposes go, no Barcelona fan will care much about that. “We had a penalty claim and a goal unfairly ruled out,” they’ll claim.
It’s all very well; it doesn’t matter. But Martino and the Barcelona squad cannot get too cocky after this win, even though they beat one of the two teams they feared most in the tournament.
To his credit, Martino seemed to be pretty grounded after the game.
He told a press conference after the game, here reported by Spanish outlet Mundo Deportivo, that his team have simply won the first half of a 180-minute game.
In the second leg, Sergio Aguero will be back. He is City’s best player, their greatest threat.
You get the feeling that he would have tucked away Dzeko’s chance and one of the ones presented to Alvaro Negredo in the first half.
But this warning isn’t just for the second leg, which they are expected to win at Camp Nou. It’s for the rest of the tournament.
Manuel Pellegrini made an error in selecting Demichelis ahead of Joleon Lescott for this game.
The Englishman played well against Chelsea at the weekend and deserved to keep his place in the side.
And, although Demichelis actually played well up until he was sent off, the tackle on Messi was clumsy and desperate.
Barcelona may not be as lucky with a manager’s selection in the next round. And the refereeing was questionable too.
Pellegrini certainly thought so anyway, raging after the game in his press conference, as reported by the Daily Mail:
He refereed Barcelona against Milan and made an important error against Barca—tonight he remedied it. From the beginning the referee was not impartial to both teams. There is more important football in Europe than Sweden. This was a game with two important teams and it needed a referee with more experience. He didn’t have any control of the game. It was not a good idea to put a referee from Sweden in charge of such an important match.
Barcelona have certainly had their luck with Scandinavian officials before—Tom Henning Ovrebo anyone?
But there’s no guarantee it will happen again.
There is much to admire in Barcelona’s victory at the Etihad Stadium, from the domination of possession—even against opponents as well-equipped as City to break it up—to the caution in not sending the full-backs flying down the wings like usual.
All this is just a message of caution. Last year's champions Bayern Munich are still out there. Pride comes before a fall.