Manchester City – Barcelona (Champions League)
The Etihad has seen a few ties to remember this season but this first leg of Champions League knock-out stages is bound to be a major one. City will have the home advantage on a reformed Barcelona that is finally coming together. The Culés are looking for their 7th straight appearance in the quarter-finals. This is Citizens first run in the last six of the competition but they can count on Manuel Pellegrini’s experience, he has taken both Villareal and Málaga there.
It was really important psychologically for Manchester City to beat Chelsea in the firth round of the FA Cup on Saturday. They would have been crushed if they failed once again to break that spell. City were absolutely dominant at home this season. They won 18 of their matches at the Etihad, scoring an average of 3.7 goals per game. The exceptions to this victorious run were Bayern Munich (1-3) and recently Chelsea (0-1), that is to say when they were face to face with squads with at least as much quality and that were prepared work hard on the ball as the Citizens do.
Sergio Aguero is unavailable, at least for another week, probably more. That is a given. One would think he would be a hard one to replace but the truth is City has coped reasonably well with it’s absence. Álvaro Negredo a Dzeko did it in his previous injury and now Stefan Jovetic is also stepping up to the task. The depth of Manchester City’s side, specially up front, is unbelievable. But lately it has been all about Fernandinho, he has proven a lot more dificult to replace. Demichelis was a disaster against Chelsea, Milner was more convincing even though he was Norwich they were fighting then. Fortunately Javi Garcia returned from injury on Saturday and made a difference, he is clearly more capable in that holding midfield position, allowing Yaya Toure to roam free. Still, he is not the real thing, and that is possibly City’s Achilles’ heal, no worthy substitute for the Brazilian. Fernandinho is the pin that holds everything together, that puts the well calibrated machine in motion. Pellegrini put him in the squad list and he will be tested prior to the fixture. If he is fit he will surely be fielded, the Citizens need their top game to beat Barcelona, whether from the start on coming in from the bench. The same thing applies to Samir Nasri. He played the last 30′ against Chelsea and was fine. But can he endure the entire 90 minutes against such a demanding team as Barcelona?
Probable line-up: Hart – Zabaleta, Kompany, Demichelis, Cluchy – Garcia, Touré – Milner, Silva – Jovetic, Negredo.
Barcelona‘s drama is that we inevitably continue to measure them against the exceptional squad it once was under Pep Guardiola, with Poyol, Xavi, Iniesta, and even Messi, all those amazing players at their prime. They have changed slightly, with Tata Martino. They are more direct, for once, and they need to introduce new players into the fold. Make no mistake, the Culés are still a force to be reckon with. Until last week or so they were being quite unimpressive. But they were still in the race, so close that after two consecutive comprehensive victories they are back at the top of La Liga on goal difference, level in points with rivals Real and Atletico Madrid. Barcelona scored 10 goals in their last 2 league matches, 1-4 over Sevilla at Sanchéz Pizjuán, 6-0 against Rayo Vallecano at Camp Nou. Cesc Fabregas has been playing really well and being decisive in many of Barcelona’s games this season. Unfortunately for him he will never be Xavi, no one could possibly fill those shoes. Lionel Messi is slowly playing his way back into the game. He is not his explosive self yet but each goal he scores boosts his form, and his last 20 minutes on Saturday were a beautiful thing to watch.
Probable line-up: Valdés – Alves, Puyol, Piqué, Alba – Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta – Sanchéz, Messi, Pedro.
I don’t see Manchester City coming into the pitch in a defensive frame of mind. They don’t really know how and frankly they lack the players to do so. The same can be said for Barcelona. The Catalan will try to take over the midfield, that is what they do. But Manuel Pellegrini is familiar with they models the players. A knowledge gathered in years preparing to go against them.
I’m expecting and exciting game, with two sides sharing an intensive attack philosophy. And if they have their way there will be goals, lots of them.