When Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and Fernandinho step out in pursuit of a pipe dream at the Nou Camp tonight, Manchester City fans might feel a rueful edge to their excitement.
Even after a couple of days to reflect, the 2-1 FA Cup defeat Manuel Pellegrini’s team suffered against Wigan seems horribly wasteful.
The quarter-final tie fell between a joyous Capital One Cup final triumph at Wembley and the UEFA Champions League encounter versus Barcelona. If ever complacency should have been thoroughly guarded against, it was when Uwe Rosler made his emotional return to the blue half of Manchester.
City were taken to a replay by Blackburn in round three and found themselves 2-0 down to Watford at half-time in round four. Irrespective of Pellegrini’s touchline tribute to leisurewear, the players should have known not to treat another FA Cup match against Championship opposition with all the gusto of an office dress-down Friday.
As for the selection of that team, it is tempting to wonder if the City manager left his intended line-up in his suit breast pocket.
A side featuring Samri Nasri, Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo should have had more than enough to see off Wigan. But Kompany, Zabaleta and Fernandinho are players central to setting the level of intensity required when City perform to their best.
Pellegrini evidently had one eye on the glamorous Nou Camp encounter, where an improbable recovery from a 2-0 first-leg deficit is required.
Rotation is a necessary part of the modern game, which places immense physical demands on its players. It lacks the romanticism of the established XIs of yesteryear, who toiled side-by-side from August until May.
Here is another unromantic notion. Fifteen years on from Manchester City’s stint in the third tier of English football, a game against the mighty Barcelona is less important than ones versus Wigan and Hull either side of it.
The semi-final Wigan now face against Arsenal would have provided Pellegrini’s men with a thorough examination. But they would have been two games away from completing the domestic cup double.
As it was, they passed up a shot at immortality. Many of England's great clubs have enjoyed the famous European nights City hope to experience in Catalonia. None have won all three domestic trophies in the same season.
Jose Mourinho’s assertion at the weekend, as per BBC Sport, that Premier League leaders Chelsea are in a weaker position than City, who are nine points behind but with three games in hand, was hardly his most subtly crafted mind-games soundbite.
Even Mourinho might have to accept the race is run with his kidology if there is a slip up at Hull. It is a prospect that should not be discounted given City’s apparent fixation with Barcelona and their stumbling recent form.
January’s swashbuckling 5-1 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane that marked 20 games unbeaten—a run when City smashed through 100 goals for the season in record time—seems an increasingly long time ago.
Spurs boss Tm Sherwood labelled City “the best team on the planet” that evening, as per BBC Sport. An outlandish statement, but he was far from alone in the eulogy department. It felt like a prudent time to stock up on blue-and-white ribbon and ticker tape.
The Capital One Cup is now safely housed in the Etihad Stadium trophy room. However, that Toure-inspired comeback over Sunderland stands as one of three wins in seven matches, during which time City have suffered three defeats.
A goalless draw at Norwich is the other result in the sequence and injury problems for Aguero and Negredo have contributed to stopping City’s free-scoring attack in its tracks, as underlined in thorough detail by Simon Bajkowski of The Manchester Evening News.
Had City’s winter juggernaut still been rampaging at full speed, Pellegrini’s approach to the Wigan match might have borne fruit. The reality of a squad struggling for top form meant it was a clear risk.
This assortment of stars could very well click into gear and do something truly memorable against an off-colour Barcelona. It would be a night for City fans to treasure.
Even then, Champions League glory would remain a long shot. Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are all potential quarter-final opponents who have displayed a far greater aptitude for Europe’s premier club competition.
In December, City closed their Champions League group campaign with a fantastic 3-2 triumph at Bayern. The match was essentially a dead rubber and Kompany, Toure, Aguero and Nasri were all absent.
Had the Wigan game been prioritised, a similar team could have avoided embarrassment tonight before the collective redoubled its focus on an unprecedented domestic treble.
City’s plans under their Abu Dhabi owners are for the long term. Imagine the clout English treble-winners would hold in future editions of the Champions League.
As it is, the FA Cup was sacrificed. If a stirling success at the Nou Camp comes at the expense of three points at the KC Stadium, a shot at the Premier League will have been damaged. It will be a stand-alone, incredibly fond memory from a week when City should have been moving towards making an indelible mark in history.