In a corner of this city's stellar football theatre, there is a reminder of the strides Manchester City must still take to arrive in the pantheon of European football.
Though bricks and mortar do not mean everything in sport, the temporary exhibition of Barcelona's planned Nou Camp expansion reveals a most spectacular vision of the future: an expanded, 105,000-capacity stadium whose illumination will create a multi-coloured orb in the Catalonian night. The means of finance – €200m (£167m) in bank loans – raises some questions in an economically crippled nation. But the grainy exhibition images, charting the road Barcelona have travelled since their stadium was built in 1957, are a reminder of how early in their journey City still are.
The footbridge linking the Etihad Stadium to their own lavish training complex and youth academy was recently opened. But the commentary to the Nou Camp exhibition observed that "our competitors are playing in new or remodelled stadiums" – picturing stadia like the Etihad, the Emirates, Allianz Arena, Juventus Stadium and, oddly, Old Trafford – which it does not considers to possess a sense of place quite like their own.
Of course, reputations are not immutable in football. Manchester United have demonstrated how quickly achievements can be consigned to ashes.
There is no disguising what City are up against as they take the 2-0 home defeat into the second leg. Never in Champions League and European Cup history has a side lost 2-0 in a home leg and still progressed and only two of the 58 teams who have found themselves in such straits in all European competition have prevailed. (It was in the Uefa Cup that Bayern Munich and Grasshoppers Zurich broke that mould.)
But the way that City can play when the shackles are off creates grounds for their optimism, which is in contrast to the sense of local pessimism which washes around this place today.
The barrage of negative questions fielded by coach Gerardo Martino and midfielder Javier Mascherano was astonishing to behold and it was fuelled by the Real Madrid paper Marca's cover story on Las horas mas bajas de Messi – "the lowest ebb of Messi" – with statistics to bear out the generally held sentiment here that the 26-year-old really has lost energy and activity in games.
His actions per match – for those who attach significance to these things – have fallen from 101.56 per game in 2011-12 to nearly 66 now. With some of his youthful freedom gone, the warning that Pep Guardiola once issued are ringing around Catalonia: "We must ensure that Messi is not bored in games."
Vincent Kompany was on the front foot in his own ebullient press conference, warning against reading too much into Barcelona's three league defeats in six. "It's tricky," he said. "You focus on that and then the beast wakes up." But the captain also summoned the memory of that comebacks to confound all others – the two injury-time goals against Queen's Park Rangers which led to City clinching their 2011-12 Premier League title – as evidence that anything can happen.
"Emotionally it's a tough ask, but emotionally you won't beat how we beat QPR and if anything gives you belief in chasing late causes then it should be that," he said. "Our team is stronger now than it was then. We are here to try to have one of those great nights."
Stirring stuff from an impressive character and the way Kompany was talking about "my strikers" gave the impression that he, rather than Manuel Pellegrini's assistant Ruben Cousillas, will be a surrogate for the Chilean, who will be absent from the dug-out, serving a touchline ban for his criticism of the Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson after the first leg.
Pellegrini left Cousillas to do the pre-match press conference, too, something the No 2 insisted was not out of pique with Uefa's two-match ban. "He was sanctioned for wrongly saying the truth," Cousillas said. "The decisions are [still] made by Manuel. I'm just his collaborator." City sources said that Uefa had approved Pellegrini's absence.
Kompany revealed more about City's intentions than his manager would ever have done, indicating that there certainly would be more attacking intent from the start than we saw in a more cautious approach at the Etihad, which worked until Martin Demichelis's dismissal. "Conceding a goal is not as bad as not scoring," Kompany reflected. "I still think we will have to score three goals across the period in 90 or 120 minutes. We can think we have nothing to lose. If we get a lead, the dynamics will change. To say we can't take the lead – no one will put any money on that."
City's concern is the way that the goals which were flowing for three months have dried up. For the first 36 games of their season, they were averaging over three a game but it has narrowed to one per game in the last seven. Alvaro Negredo, who has been carrying a shoulder injury, Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko have not scored for a combined 907 minutes and the only striker to have done so in the last seven games is Stefan Jovetic, who misses the match through injury, along with Matija Nastasic.
"I will tell you one thing," Kompany said of all that, "I'm just really happy they are on my side. We are looking to the future. It might just be [their night]."
As they walk from dressing room to pitch, City's players will be reminded of what it is to reach the heights of the greats. The corridor they pass through is adorned with a mural depicting Barcelona's 2006 Champions League triumph over Arsenal in Paris and 1992 European Cup glory against Sampdoria at Wembley. City do not look like a side who will be cowed by that. They are unlikely to die wondering how it might have been, going all out for a comeback like none other in one of football's greatest venues.
Ibrahimovic still wants part in PSG stroll
Even though Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been hindered by a sore back and could do with a rest, the Paris Saint-Germain coach, Laurent Blanc, will not do without the prolific striker for the second leg against Bayer Leverkusen.
PSG hold a 4-0 lead heading into the home leg of the last-16 tie and it seems to be the perfect time to give the Swede a night off. But Ibrahimovic, who scored a hat-trick at the BayArena and has 38 goals in all competitions this season, is in the form of his life. "We'll have to protect him a bit, but Zlatan always wants to play," said Blanc. "I know what his answer will be."
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