UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: MANCHESTER CITY 3 VS BARCELONA. MAN CITY ENACT REVENGE ON BARCELONA
This, of course, is why they waited for him, why they courted him, why they put everything in place to make it just right.
This is the momentous occasion Manchester City’s hierarchy hoped Pep Guardiola would provide. Well, it is the starting point at least. It is one thing beating Barcelona in the group stage, quite another to do so in the knockout rounds.
But until Tuesday night, City had not defeated Barcelona in this competition at all. Sixth time lucky, except luck had nothing to do with it. City deserved this. They outplayed Barcelona. Over 90 minutes, they were far the better team.
It could have been more. City had a worthy penalty appeal turned down and missed a greater number of chances than they converted. Guardiola’s high press put a fragile Barcelona back line under duress, and the margin did not flatter the winners.
Yes, Barcelona are weakened at the back right now, but that should take nothing away from City. To recover from a 4-0 humbling in the Nou Camp takes grit and faith — and they fell behind here, too. For the period that followed Lionel Messi’s 21st-minute goal, his 16th in 14 matches against English sides in Europe, the visitors looked untouchable.
It would have been easy for City to crumble. They didn’t. They got a foothold in the game and dominated from there. After Ilkay Gundogan’s 39th-minute equaliser, there was only going to be one winner. Gundogan’s performance was a triumph for Guardiola, too. His summer signing scored twice and dominated midfield in the way Yaya Toure used to, except Toure never did it against Barcelona.
And while City’s defensive frailties remain, after last season’s semi-final appearance this was a performance that suggests the club could be genuine contenders for the European title this season. Just as Guardiola’s employers hoped.
The third goal encapsulated City’s supremacy. Kevin De Bruyne put a beautiful pass behind Barcelona’s back four, Jesus Navas crossed and when Sergio Aguero could not get the required contact, the ball fell kindly for Gundogan to strike home. Barcelona had been opened up, as City were at the Nou Camp last month.
Guardiola must have been pleased because, for once, the coach allowed himself a brief celebration, a fist pump and a purposeful stride back to his bench. That’s real joy in Guardiola’s world. That’s Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars stuff.
Guardiola is on a steep learning curve here, though. He is finally finding out what it is like to fight against European aristocracy, rather than be part of it. As manager of Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, he was on the side of the angels as far as UEFA were concerned. It is different managing City. It is harder to catch a break.
As wonderful as they are, undoubtedly Barcelona do occasionally benefit from home field advantage, even when they are away. Basically, the Champions League is always home turf for them. They are its favourite sons, their football its finest expression.
So referees do not like to believe that Barcelona might be fallible, that their defenders dive in, that they give penalties away like mere mortals. That is what happened after 11 minutes when Manchester City should have been afforded the opportunity to take the lead but were instead accused of cheating.
Aguero found Raheem Sterling, who was tripped by Samuel Umtiti. It really was no more complicated than that. If we are searching for explanations it could be argued that Sterling added additional drama to the incident in the way he fell, but not so much that referee Viktor Kassai should have been made uncertain.
Even the old ‘watch it in real time’ arguments do not apply. It looked a penalty in real time, a penalty in slow motion, a penalty on fast forward and it probably would have looked a penalty if you were watching the Arsenal game on the other channel, too. Then Kassai marched up — and booked Sterling for diving. Welcome to life as a Champions League prole, Pep. If he had hair he would have been tearing it out.
The danger being that Barcelona make the most of every opportunity. A sniff, a half-chance, a lucky break, a counter-attack. Having got away with one, within 10 minutes they were ahead.
One moment City thought they were in with a chance of scoring, the next Willy Caballero was retrieving the ball from his net.
It happens in a flash. Aguero had a shot blocked, which fell to Messi. He sprayed a pass out to Neymar and Barcelona were away down the left. Reaching a deep wide position, Neymar looked up, spotted Messi continuing a run through the middle and found him with a perfectly- weighted square ball. The whereabouts of City’s defence at this time is unknown. They had parted, scattered, disappeared. Messi ran on to the ball, ran into the space, side-footed it past Caballero.
A lot of teams think they play on the counter-attack. Barcelona have taken it to fresh heights. It is like watching a computer geek take on a novice at FIFA PlayStation. Barcelona are a different level. For a period after, they looked as if they could score every time they advanced into City’s half. Neymar had an effort from the left that Cabellero kept out, Messi cut one back that Luis Suarez couldn’t quite turn in.
Yet this is a Barcelona team missing key men defensively. Mistakes are being made and in the 39th minute one from Sergi Roberto changed the game. A mirror of the error made by John Stones here against Southampton last month, Roberto passed blind across his own defensive line, finding only Aguero.
He played in Sterling who, intelligently, waited the split second for a team-mate to arrive in a better position. The delay allowed Gundogan to make ground and, with the ball at his feet, he could not miss. City were level and, to their credit, made it count.
More chaos in the Barcelona ranks soon after, an overrun ball allowing Fernandinho to shoot, with Aguero inches away, and the momentum continued after half-time. Roberto’s radar was woeful again, letting in Aguero, who found Sterling, only this time his touch was heavy and he shot wide.
Aguero then went close again before David Silva was brought down on the edge of the area. For once, an official found Barcelona guilty and De Bruyne lined it up.
What a free-kick it was. Over the wall, out of the reach of Marc-Andre ter Stegen. City were ahead. Not a flicker from Guardiola, once again. After the first goal he called Fernandinho over for some tactical instructions and after this, nothing. He didn’t even leave his seat.
Maybe, in those instances, less is more. By refusing to react, Guardiola acknowledged City’s supremacy. By remaining motionless, he demonstrated it was their game to lose. He was right. Andre Gomes hit the bar for Barcelona but, otherwise, all was calm.
A draw in Monchengladbach might now be enough. This was a coming of age performance You get what you pay for, as the saying goes.