I was at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, and for 15 minutes in the second half it was clear that Manchester City were making life very difficult for Barcelona.
It was with Edin Dzeko in the team that they caused so many problems. I advocated before the game that City play two strikers in the second leg because Barcelona always leave two centre-backs on their own, so it could have been two-against-two with Yaya Toure coming from behind, and I wonder what might have happened.
Of course we are talking with hindsight, but it was the tactic used by Real Valladolid when they won 1-0 against Gerardo Martino's men in La Liga at the weekend—so it obviously can work if implemented well.
In any case, it felt like it took Manchester City about 145 minutes of the tie before they realised two important things: Firstly, how good they really are and, secondly, that Barcelona could have been vulnerable to defeat.
The main talking point among managers in Spain after the game was how surprised they were by City’s approach to the game. This is not my opinion, this is what the managers are saying.
It’s as if City did not know about some of the troubles and issues with this current Barcelona side, and showed them far too much respect. City are a big club with a fine team now, and a different kind of approach—keeping the ball as much as possible, being the attacking protagonists when the spaces open up—might have worked better.
In the likes of Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Fernandinho they certainly have the midfield quality to do that.
But it wasn’t meant to be, and the one thing City will perhaps take away from Spain is the need to believe in themselves much more when they go into future games of a similar stature.
It’s disappointing for City, but it is still one step further than they got in the competition last season. So, in a way, you can still call that progress.
With Manchester City and Arsenal already out of Europe, and with Manchester United facing a difficult task against Olympiakos next week, we could be left with just one English club in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Assuming, that is, that Chelsea can beat Galatasaray at home—after drawing the first leg 1-1 in Istanbul.
The reaction to such a poor showing from Premier League sides by those running them (and supporting them) does not have to be knee-jerk. Nevertheless, there does appear to have been a decline in recent times—last season no English club reached the quarter-finals (and only Arsenal and Manchester United reached the knockout stages), while in 2012 only Chelsea reached the last eight—although they did famously go on to win the whole thing.
It is strange, because Spanish football has arguably never been so poor (outside the big two, and perhaps Atletico Madrid, at least), while the limits of the wage structure in Germany means that clubs there are restricted in the sort of players they can attract.
So what is happening in England?
That is something that is open to wider discussion, but I think there are a few potential causes.
Firstly, some of the choices that clubs have made in recent seasons have been surprising, especially in terms of the quality of players they have signed or not signed.
Chelsea, perhaps, are exempt from that criticism because they have generally been very successful in Europe over the last decade—they seem to progress deep into the competition even when they do not have the very best side.
But Manchester United, for example, should have recycled parts of their squad two or three years ago, and are now feeling the consequences of that acutely.
With Arsenal, it feels like the issue goes beyond getting good players—which is the remedy that many of the club's fans seem to want. They perhaps need a new approach too, especially from within—with more work on tactics and strategy and physically preparing the players for these sort of games.
Perhaps, too, they need a better mix of attributes within their squad by bringing in players whose physical approach will give an extra dimension to a side that is technically proficient but sometimes lacks in steel.
Sometimes in games you need to be physically strong in to push through difficult moments.
Manchester City remains a project that is still in its formative years as far as European participation goes, regardless of the amount of money that has been poured into it. This year they have gone one step further than last season, which is progress, but they now need to change their mentality.
One way to do that is by continuing to win, but another way is to buy in new players who have already got that winning mentality engrained.
City are perhaps carrying a few too many players at the moment who do not have that edge, who have not got into the winning habit over the course of their careers to date in the same way that Barcelona’s men have.
That might partly explain why City showed the Catalan side too much respect in their two meetings—and did not realise just how big a chance to progress they had until it was too late to do anything about it.
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