Manchester City, Light Years from Barcelona's Quality, Must Rethink Time Table

Phil KeidelContributor IIMarch 12, 2014

City never had anything approaching an answer for Messi in this tie.
City never had anything approaching an answer for Messi in this tie.David Ramos/Getty Images

In a strange way, Manchester City's performance over two legs of a Champions League knockout tie with Barcelona was liberating and should come as a great relief to the club's supporters.

Because City proved themselves to be so far out of Barcelona's weight class that all pretense to contending for a Champions League trophy in the foreseeable future should be promptly set on fire and forgotten.

City chairman Ferran Soriano infamously called for City to win "five trophies in five years" before this season started, even specifying that the hardware awarded for winning the Champions League and the Premier League were the trophies he meant.

For much of this season, City could delude themselves into believing that such prizes were theirs to win.

City have spent most of the Premier League season if not at the table's top, then certainly within touching distance of it. Even now, nine points back of league-leading Chelsea, City can take the Blues' lead away if they hold serve in their three league games in hand.

And they finally broke their Champions League knockout stage hex, even tagging the defending holders Bayern Munich with a rare loss at Allianz Arena along the way.

The sea was high.

Then City drew Barcelona in the opening round of the knockout stage, and, well, uncomfortable truths were told.

On the micro level, the match results of each leg really flattered City. Barcelona won 2-0 at the Etihad but could really just as easily have scored four or five in Manchester had they converted more of the handful of chances they created.

Conversely, City never looked much like scoring on their home ground, especially once they went down to ten men when journeyman centre-back Martin Demichelis callously scythed Lionel Messi down from behind.

That City had Demichelis on the pitch at all, tells a lot of the story. Champions League sides are not supposed to be relying on spent players like Demichelis, especially at centre-back. When that happens, the vulnerable player is almost always exposed and exploited by such superior opposition.

Entering the second leg at Camp Nou needing an unlikely, desperate scoring binge to survive, City instead saw Barcelona again create many more of the meaningful scoring chances.

Messi was crushed in the area very early on by Joleon Lescott and weirdly denied a spot kick, and Neymar's goal in the 18th minute was erased as offside.

Later, Neymar splashed the outside of City's netting when he looked sure to score. Meanwhile, only Samir Nasri's volley was notable as a first half scoring chance for City.

To their legitimate credit, City did come flying out of the changing room for the second half and had the better of the first 15-20 minutes of that interval. Edin Dzeko's header brought an incredible save from Victor Valdes. Even during that time, though, Messi slashed a low drive off the woodwork behind Hart.

By the time Messi did chip Barcelona's third aggregate goal past Hart, City had spilled their collective bucket trying to claw themselves back into the tie.

There just wasn't enough in the bucket.

Long faces and heavy hearts were a theme for City against Barcelona, in Spain and in England.
Long faces and heavy hearts were a theme for City against Barcelona, in Spain and in England.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

That City managed to concede twice and lose a man in both matches just underscores that point.

The macro analysis of this tie shows that City are not a better centre-back than Demichelis, or a better playmaker than David Silva, or a better striker than Dzeko (who to be fair was probably City's best player in the second leg) away from reaching level competitive terms with Barcelona.

City are demonstrably worse than Barcelona at five or six positions, and that does not even address the question of squad depth. This is not the sort of gap you close in one transfer window, or even in two or three.

It will take a few seasons worth of canny and maybe fortunate player development and transfer dealings to raise City's level to the point where a Champions League tie with Barcelona will not look this lopsided.

Unfortunately, Barcelona and their ilk will be working on improving in that time, too.

So, in a strange and unsatisfying way, watching City get blistered over two legs of a Champions League knockout tie with Barcelona should at least release and eliminate some of the pent-up and unrealistic feelings that City are further along as a European contender than they are.

City fans who do not agree need only watch these two Barcelona matches over again.

To be honest, though, you shouldn't wish that fate on an enemy.