Barcelona 2 Manchester City 1 match report: Lionel Messi and Dani Alves on target as Pablo Zabaleta sees red and City exit Champions League
Like Arsenal the previous evening, City fail to overturn a two-goal deficit against superior opposition
It was the ultimate form of punishment for Manuel Pellegrini that he should have seen from the stands, in full perspective, the dreadful size of the task he faces in accomplishing the feat of creating a football team in Barcelona’s image.
He seemed to shield his eyes from the pitch in the seconds after Lionel Messi – a player who made a whole heap of nonsense last night out of all the talk of his diminishing influence – had exposed with the decisive first goal the folly of Manchester City’s failure to build a defence to match the attacking dimension.
But this was a game which revealed a gulf all over the pitch and asks questions about how far Pellegrini has actually taken City, despite the initial evidence that he had created something quite brilliant.
The night ended with two goals in the last two minutes and high controversy – Pablo Zabaleta was dismissed for dissent directed at the referee, who refused City a borderline penalty on a night which damaged the name of French officials as much as the first leg did for the Swedes.
But nothing should obscure a gulf in class epitomised by Messi, whose 67th Champions League goal, scored in the 67th minute, takes him only four short of Raul’s record.
There was, of course, a measure of disbelief among those with longer memories that they were really here. It was 15 years ago today that City lost 2-1 at Maine Road against Oldham in the Third Division. They have travelled a very long way and there was some circumspection and deference about the City starting line-up, in which James Milner added some muscularity on the left side to help Aleksandar Kolarov cope with Neymar.
That device barely made an impression. The observation conjured by Zabaleta in Spain’s El Pais daily paper was that rugby-tackling Messi was a solution to apply le frenas (the brake) to the Catalans, but that an army of others would still pick up the threat from where he lay.
That’s how it was when City went about their work. So much for “high tension” as that paper put it on Wednesday morning. Messi set about Joleon Lescott in a way that made you fear for his state of mind, as the home side’s confident, clinical play reduced Vincent Kompany’s confident talk of how “nothing is better than chasing a lost cause” to what it was: just words.
Three of City’s players – Fernandinho, Zabaleta and Kolarov – found themselves booked and walking a tightrope before even half an hour had been played. And though the crowd had its usual influence on officialdom, City were given a huge stoke of fortune when Lescott planted a mistimed right foot into the Argentine’s legs as he barrelled around the fringe of City’s area. The only surprise was that Barcelona did not demand the penalty they were due far more effusively.
Pablo Zabaleta is shown a red a card by referee Stephane Lannoy (GETTY) It was not the only rescue provided by the French referee Stéphane Lannoy. An overlapping Jordi Alba was wrongly judged to be offside when he received Cesc Fabregas’s rolled pass and levelled it for Neymar to tap in a goal which should certainly have counted. It was Tita Martino’s players finding the new gear which City had needed to salvage the 2-0 aggregate that weighed against them.
Lescott had the occasional moment against Messi – the two clean challenges will probably be forgotten amid the collective memory of carnage today – but the Argentine cut the Englishman away, just as Neymar did Kolarov. And City’s need to keep shipping water meant they could barely attend to the small matter of scoring two goals – or even the breakthrough strike they so badly needed.
Sergio Aguero was deeply isolated and only David Silva managed to deliver to the Catalans a hint of what they had dealt to City. A divine flick with the back of his heel to divert Yaya Touré’s clipped pass into Samir Nasri’s line of fire was City’s stand-out moment of the first half.
Dani Alves (right) celebrates his late goal for Barcelona (GETTY) It was a lack of pace which also hindered the visiting team. The pace of Jesus Navas feeding Alvaro Negredo would have been a more potent threat than City’s narrow game here, in which Silva was seeking to run the ball through Barcelona. The suspended Pellegrini, tucked in next to sporting director Txiki Begiristain as this grim spectacle unfolded, did not hesitate to act at the interval, bringing on Edin Dzeko in the second half for an Aguero whose contribution had been next to nothing.
The Bosnian’s impact was instantaneous. He shaped a header from a Kolarov cross to force a very sharp save from Victor Valdes, and Zabaleta’s skewed shot from space on the right-hand side of the area, after another Kolarov cross had been tamely cleared, finally created some of the palpitations City had been looking to establish.
But that hope was pitifully short-lived because Messi had never drifted away. He continued to pick away at the fabric of Lescott – cutting back past him and leaving him chasing his shadow across the area before placing a left-foot shot against the base of Joe Hart’s right post. Then came the strike which confirmed the night’s increasingly inevitable outcome. Fabregas simply ran the ball between Lescott’s legs six minutes past the hour and watched Messi collect and place it in the net.
Zabaleta’s dimissal came amid his fury that Gerard Pique’s clumsy penalty box challenge on Dzeko had gone unpunished – a marginal call – though City did equalise when Dzeko headed down Milner’s corner to Kompany – just onside – as he steered it in. Lescott, standing beside him and offside, did not affect the phase of play.
There was still time for Xavi, Iniesta and Alexis Sanchez to lace passes which set up Dani Alves’s sweeping, winning goal. For Alves, remonstrating with the supporters who have questioned his ability, the goal was an act of vindication. For Pellegrini, it was a final, punishing assertion of the long road that lies ahead.
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