Tuesday sees Manchester City and Barcelona lock horns in one of the most enticing UEFA Champions League encounters on offer in the round of 16. It's a rematch of last year's bout, when Manuel Pellegrini's men fell to a delightful Lionel Messi-led outfit in disappointing circumstances.
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Per UEFA, Yaya Toure sees out the final match of his three-game suspension, while Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy are all a booking away from a ban.
That may prompt Pellegrini to play Bacary Sagna, who is a better one-on-one defender than Zabaleta, at right-back to deal with Jordi Alba, but Clichy will likely get the nod over Aleksandar Kolarov due to his recovery pace.
Toure's suspension essentially locks Fernando in alongside Fernandinho unless Pellegrini surprises everyone and starts Frank Lampard. The workmanlike nature of that midfield will be perfect for the impending game pattern.
City could go 4-4-2 and play Dzeko up top with Aguero dropping in a little, but bringing David Silva or Samir Nasri inside with Aguero up top and starting Jesus Navas on the right may be the better option.
Martin Demichelis made a bad error in this fixture last year, and Eliaquim Mangala is coming off a clean sheet against Newcastle United. That could make the choice about who partners Vincent Kompany at centre-back a little easier.
Barcelona rested Ivan Rakitic against Malaga on Saturday, and he'll come straight back into the starting XI, given how they were found wanting up front without his incisive, direct passing.
Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez will continue up front, but the the rest of the team selection is tough to guess. Dani Alves and Alba should play full-back, but the centre-back combination and other midfield slots are up in the air.
Claudio Bravo is yet to play a Champions League minute this season; it will be interesting to see if Luis Enrique prefers Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the knockout stages or reverts to his 31-year-old stalwart.
Andres Iniesta was ineffectual against Malaga and was withdrawn early, so he should be fit and fresh to play here.
Key Point 1: Copy Malaga, Not Athetic Bilbao!
Athletic Bilbao committed tactical suicide when they played Barcelona recently, pressing high, which led to an absurdly high defensive line and opened swathes of space in behind for their opponents to utilise.
When you put yourself in a situation like that, you're challenging yourself to keep up with Barca in the goal tally, and few have the consistency and clinical nature required. Ernesto Valverde's plan that night is not something to replicate, but this weekend did drop a golden nugget for Pellegrini, as his former club Malaga beat Barca 1-0.
Compact, sturdy banks of four were produced in a rigid 4-4-2 shape, shifting from left to right and utilising tight zonal marking to close off space for attackers. No room in behind to exploit, a positive commanding goalkeeper and two seriously committed, physical centre-backs.
Shades of Diego Simeone, granted, but Malaga manager Javi Gracia deserves credit for avoiding defeat to Barca in this season. His blueprint is the one to copy—not Valverde's!
Key Point 2: Individual Mistakes
Barcelona have been picking up 65-70 per cent of the ball in recent games, per WhoScored, so the pattern of the impending fixture is very predictable.
Fernando and Fernandinho are perfectly suited to breaking up play and sparking counters, while Aguero and Silva will make the most of scraps on the counter-attack. The biggest threat to City's game plan is individual errors, and that goes for Barcelona too.
A real mess occurred between Alves and Bravo to gift Malaga's Juanmi the winning goal of the game, while this time last year, Demichelis' stupid lunge to concede a penalty and earn himself a red card changed the complexion of the tie and indubitably swung the pendulum in Barca's favour.
It may be stating the obvious somewhat, but the reason Malaga and Atletico Madrid are able to hold defensive performances together for 90-minute periods is because they don't make these mistakes. Teams used to having it all their way and having lots of the ball do commit errors; in this case, it might be a war of attrition to see who can make the fewest.