Any faint hopes Manchester City harboured that Barcelona were ripe for plucking following their shock defeat at home to Malaga last weekend were blown away into the cold Manchester air in a 30-minute spell on Tuesday night at the Etihad.
Two goals from Luis Suarez—the first after 16 minutes where the finish was as brilliant as the rebound that preceded it had been lucky, and the second after a magical move involving Lionel Messi and Jordi Alba that had Barcelona’s handwriting all over it—gave his side the 2-1 victory.
The result certainly made Barcelona red-hot favourites to make it to their eighth Champions League quarter-final on the trot.
This was a great performance from Luis Enrique’s men, probably the best of the season (particularly in the first half), and there would have been few complaints had Barcelona gone in at the interval at least three or four goals to the good with the tie effectively decided.
But as convincing as Barcelona were, much of the blame for City’s defeat needs to fall squarely on the shoulders of manager Manuel Pellegrini.
The Chilean manager had said before the game he intended to take the game to the Catalans from the start, per Mike Roberts of FCBarcelona.com. He would have been wiser to look to the stifling, counter-attacking tactics that earned the points for Malaga last weekend.
The problem was not that City attacked from the start but rather that they didn’t know what tactics they should best employ.
It was this lack of definition in their game plan that led to their having to fight their way back into the match in the second half.
A 4-4-2 line-up left them short in the middle, and as a result the Barcelona backs created havoc down the flanks, and the inside midfielders had all the space they wanted as they strolled into the opposition penalty area.
City wanted to pressure high, but after the first goal, the defenders panicked and dropped too deep. That was that.
Match that with strong pressure from every Barcelona player high up the pitch and another mercurial display from a super-sharp Messi, who looked imperious as a No. 10 and even occasionally tracked back to perform the duties of a No. 4 to get the ball in his own half.
Like the great fighters they are, City are always at their most dangerous when hurt and trying to climb their way out of a hole. But it's a hole they have dug for themselves—a sure sign of a team that is still not yet fully developed.
In the second half, City showed increased intensity, and Barcelona struggled more—which was precisely what should have happened for the whole match.
Pellegrini, apparently, had asked his players to pressure high up the pitch, but did he ask himself if he had the players on the pitch capable of carrying out his instructions?
Edin Dzeko could have reduced the arrears early in the second half but sent his header straight into the arms of Marc-Andre ter Stegen. City’s pressure finally paid off after Messi, of all people, lost the ball in his own half, and a brilliant touch from David Silva put in Sergio Aguero to halve the deficit.
The dismissal of Gael Clichy—which was unfair—was also a direct result of the tactics employed by Pellegrini and the scoreline at that point, with City chasing their tails. From that moment onward, the game was effectively over.
Pellegrini will point to a strong, committed second-half display from his men as he prepares them for the second leg at the Camp Nou on 18 March. Had he gone there with a goalless draw, there was always the chance of his side doing a Malaga.
An unlikely 2-1 victory would bring about the lottery of penalties, but in reality he now knows his side must score at least twice while simultaneously preventing Barcelona’s rampant attack from scoring if they want to progress to their first Champions League quarter-final. That isn't likely to happen.
Barcelona were certainly good—very good—but in truth, Pellegrini’s tactics made them look even better.