That’s the only way to sum up Manchester City’s Champions League performance on Tuesday. It wasn’t so much a game of two halves, more a tale of two Cities – the Manchester City that kicked off at 7.45pm which, after a brief opening flurry, was abject, stilted and lacking in thought as well as creativity. After the break it was a completely different looking side that carved out four clear cut goal chances in less than 15 second-half minutes.
All the pre-match build-up, on this side of the English Channel, centred on Barcelona not being the side they were and how they were not controlling games as they were lauded for and, even, that they were not as good at winning the ball. And when City launched themselves out of the traps in the opening 15 minutes it looked as if they believed all that hyperbole.
Barcelona are not the team they were, but they are better in some ways. OK, they may not have the swagger of Iniesta, Puyol et al, or even the conveyor belt of silverware the aforementioned players were part of yet, but they demonstrated on Tuesday that they have evolved. With a brace of goals from Luis Suárez they threatened to wipe the floor with City, who were shell-shocked as the Uruguayan added a second, and world class strike, to his first goal, which benefitted from a fortuitous bounce of the ball.
Where once, or to be more accurate, usually, Barca relied on Messi for goals, created by Iniesta and co, the front three they have now covers just about every quality required by a world class forward. Messi creates, Suárez scores; Suárez passes, Neymar scores; Neymar passes and either Messi or Suárez scores. The options are limitless.
The tie overall was never about the result of the first leg, good thing too as, at 2-0 down City were already being written off. The second last 16 clash between the two sides inside a year was seen more as a yardstick of how far City have come in that 12 months. In that respect and reflecting the duality of the title, a Tale of Two Cities, judgement has to reflect the performance of Pellegrini’s side in each half.
For the first quarter of an hour City looked like they were well up for the challenge but, unfortunately, that’s often as long as it takes Barca to get into their formidable stride. Lo and behold, 16 minutes on the clock and Suárez put them ahead. Forget the lucky bounce of the ball that set him up, praise instead the word class reaction and finish from the striker who showed Liverpool and the rest of the Premier League what we have been missing to fire past Hart to make it 1-0.
Neymar then showed why Barca’s stellar front three are more than goalscorers when he set the Uruguayan through with a superb pass and only an equally superb Hart save kept City in the game. The Catalan side then proceeded with their master-class in how to play top level Champions League football, and on the half hour a super back heel from Alba was well converted by Suarez for 2-0. Neymar then lobbed over Hart and, in the same vein that the City keeper’s late penalty save may prove pivotal in the tie, the bounce that took the ball wide of the far post may prove equally significant.
City finished the half looking like a team of players incapable of neither decisive thought or action. Barca looked the exact opposite.
It was a completely different City at the restart, though Pellegrini had made no personnel changes. With the kind of self-belief that wasn’t part of the team’s DNA in the first half, City racked up several corners in quick succession, but the image of a stable door bolt and a loose horse came to mind. But then the chances started to come.
Džeko headed wide from a great position and similar profligacy moments later underlined why he is a good player but not a great one, certainly at Champions League level. Agüero – starved of service in the first period, took things into his own hands, as world class players do, and was inches away from reducing the arrears with a cracking shot.
Demichelis then squandered another good chance, City’s fourth since the restart, before their pressure finally paid off.
A cheeky, instinctive Silva back heel in the 69th minute put Agüero in but he still had much to do and didn’t he do it well. Like a footballing Pampas bull he shrugged off a defensive lunge from Piqué before crashing the ball home to register his 98th Manchester City goal, his 11th in 10 Champions’ League games, and give City hope. Hope that was dashed when Clichy was sent off for a second bookable offence on Alves, who never needs an invitation to go down under challenge.
Stick or twist was Pellegrini’s dilemma at that stage. He decided on the former and sent Sagna on for Silva but as they game lurched into stoppage time City’s worst nightmare, nearly, loomed. Zabaleta felled Messi. Penalty, no question.
At that point I actually felt, against all the football logic you could muster, that Joe Hart would save the spot kick. He did, and when Messi followed up his kick, the resultant diving header flew wide of the unguarded goal to leave City just 2-1 down ahead of the second leg AND with a chance.
In the novel A Tale of Two Cities the closing words of the hero, Sydney Carlton, as he faced the guillotine having taken the place of his friend, have become part of literary history;
“It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before….”
If City are to make their own Champions League history in a few weeks time they need their own version, and a far better one than on Tuesday night, to last longer than 45 minutes and start a little earlier than the second half.
City may not dump Barcelona out of the competition but if they can again show improvement and lessons learnt, as displayed in the second half at the Etihad, then the right recruitment next season may just bring Champions League success.