5 Tactical Battles That Will Shape Barcelona's Clash with Manchester City
In school I had a professor who would let any student re-take an examination they failed. The catch was that the best the student could hope to achieve was a "C."
This educational gambit no doubt posed some soul-searching moments for the professor's students.
On the one hand, a "C" is a lot better than an "F" and so the knee-jerk reaction would be to sign up for the mulligan.
Then again, that test just finished kicking that student's hindquarters all over the room. Would 24 hours (maybe 48) of fresh preparation really make a difference? Failing the re-test would be a serious embarrassment, not to mention a shameful waste of free time.
Manchester City failed their first Champions League knockout stage test fairly miserably. Home to Barcelona, City finished the first leg of their tie one man and two goals down.
Fortunately (unfortunately?) for City, there is no opt-out for the second leg of this Champions League encounter with Barcelona. Blowing off the second leg and going out for pizza and beer is out of the question.
Can City pass the test this time?
Barcelona vs. the Lead
Whoever first said that a two-goal lead is the toughest lead to defend was probably trailing by two goals at the time.
Certainly, Barcelona are beyond thrilled to lead this tie by two goals (away goals, by the way) at the start of the second leg. It is a dominant position for any club to have, much less a trophy-tested side like the Catalans.
And yet, what if City score in the first 10 minutes? What if they bag two before the break? Of course none of that is likely but no one could fairly say it cannot happen.
So how will Barcelona approach this match? Will they be as aggressive on the counter? Will they try so hard to dominate possession this time knowing that overextending to win the ball in City's half can spark a City rush the other way?
Lionel Messi and his teammates would not sit back on a two-goal lead and invite calamity.
City vs. the Deficit
Americans (myself included) generally look at a situation like the one City is in entering the second leg of this Champions League tie with Barcelona and have one reaction.
Go big or don't go at all.
How many healthy strikers do we have? Start them all. Do the rules say we have to start at least three defenders in front of the keeper? What about the midfield—do we really need one? Has anyone ever played a 3-1-6 before?
Because really, what's the difference between losing this tie 2-0 on aggregate or 22-0? Losing means you're out of the tournament and nothing more.
Some of the above is exaggeration for effect. Of course you cannot blindly pour forward against a club like Barcelona and hope not to get embarrassed.
For that matter, if City really are as good as they think they are, they should be able to play their conventional game (with a tweak here and there) and at least draw themselves level.
Still, the degree of aggression City boss Manuel Pellegrini brings to this second leg will be very interesting. Is he willing to risk looking bad for the slim chance to look like a miracle worker?
Lionel Messi vs. Whoever Plays in Place of Martin Demichelis
The irony here is so thick that it is hard to breathe through it.
Manchester City fans have bemoaned the ongoing follies of centre-back Martin Demichelis for months. At the top of the list of Demichelis' errors, of course, was his rash hack down of Lionel Messi in the first leg of City's Champions League pairing with Barcelona.
Off he went, into City's net went the penalty kick and, despite their best efforts, the ten men Demichelis left behind could not keep Barcelona from doubling the lead right before the match ended.
Now City are headed to Barcelona dreaming an impossible dream of pulling this thing out with a huge upset victory, and they will do it without Demichelis whose red card in the first leg disqualifies him for the second.
Early signs point to Joleon Lescott taking Demichelis' place, per Richard Jolly of ESPN FC.
Barcelona's response to that news must be a weary "whatever" accompanied by a "W" sign fashioned from their thumbs and index fingers.
Lionel Messi gave Barcelona the lead at the Etihad by exploiting Demichelis' lack of pace and inability to play the high defensive line and keep Messi from streaking past him.
Lescott is not exactly a whippet himself. Look for Messi to make the exact same runs in this match.
Daniel Alves vs. the Green Light City Have Posted at Left-Back
Probably the most disappointing part of Manchester City's 2-0 defeat to Barcelona at the Etihad is that it really could have been even more lopsided than that.
Gerard Pique had a late goal erased for a dodgy offside. Xavi spurned a really good chance by firing over the bar.
And Daniel Alves uncharacteristically dragged a shot from the right wing across the face of Joe Hart's goal and wide when he had half an acre to shoot at in the 68th-minute.
The thing about professional goalscorers, though, is that they rarely miss the same shot twice in the same match. Alves was presented with a nearly identical opening in the 90th-minute and given the second chance he never dreamed of missing the target.
If City have not closed this hole in their defense, Alves is going to exploit it again and perhaps again after that.
City's Strikers vs. the Doughnuts They Keep Serving Up
For a club which is supposed to boast four world-class strikers, Manchester City sure have a hard time scoring goals.
It wasn't always like this, of course. City famously raced out to 100 goals in all competitions by the middle of January.
That was fun, right? Well, look away now if you want to keep that fun feeling going.
Here are the latest gory numbers from City's once-and-future prolific strikers:
- Alvaro Negredo: Eight appearances in all competitions, no goals.
- Sergio Aguero: Goalless in all competitions since missing the entire month of February with an injury.
- Edin Dzeko: One goal in his last 12 appearances in all competitions and goalless in his last nine.
- Stevan Jovetic: Injured again; one goal in seven Premier League appearances and has not appeared in Champions League play for City.
City supporters can prattle on all they like about how special Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas can be in the midfield. And they do score goals.
But when you take on a quality side like Barcelona, it's the strikers that make the difference, silly.
If City cannot get at least two goals from Negredo, Aguero and Dzeko in this second leg, they have nearly zero chance of surviving this round.