The Barcelona that once haunted Manuel Pellegrini was back in Manchester – the team that passed through defences like an army of silken soldiers, the team he could not catch despite amassing 96 points and 102 goals in La Liga, the team that got him the sack as manager of Real Madrid.
When he heard the result from the Nou Camp on Saturday afternoon, just before Manchester City put five past Newcastle United, Pellegrini would have afforded himself a quiet smile. Barcelona had lost at home to Malaga, the club he had fled to after being forced out of the Bernabeu.
Had he seen the newspapers in Barcelona on Sunday morning, the dominant photograph was one of Lionel Messi on his knees. Messi finished on his knees last night after missing a penalty that would have settled the tie. The odds, however, are that what Bobby Robson called “the army of Catalonia” will march on.
Barcelona had changed. When Pellegrini squared up to them in La Liga, they were staring down from a state of almost glacial perfection. Under Pep Guardiola, they had taken football to levels so rarefied that you needed oxygen merely to watch them.
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings
1/3 BARCELONA: Marc Andre ter Stegen
The young German, who hasn’t made a league appearance this season, was rarely tested – but when he was he did not always look completely comfortable. 6
2/3 Dani Alves
The marauding full-back is not the dynamic attacking threat he once was, but he was still able to find acres of space in which to run. 7
3/3 Lionel Messi
Had been the best player on the pitch before pulling rank late on to deny Luis Suarez a hat-trick – but missed the penalty and the follow up. 8
But Guardiola is long gone. This was the Barcelona of the alleged underhand payments to Neymar’s family, the Barcelona where Messi appeared to be at war with his own manager, the Barcelona that had just sacked Carles Puyol and Andoni Zubizarreta from their backroom staff. A Barcelona that had seen the balance of power in Spanish football return to Madrid, not just to Real, but Atletico. A Barcelona that might be beaten.
That Barcelona seldom showed. They have changed under Luis Enrique, who has tried to impose a more direct style of football on a team who once lost a European Cup semi-final to Manchester United because they insisted on trying to walk the ball into Edwin van der Sar’s net.
They are not yet Wimbledon under Bobby Gould, but Messi’s chip into the area that set up Luis Suarez’s first goal looked, from a certain angle, suspiciously like a long ball.
As Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto’o and, latterly, Luis Enrique himself have discovered, if you value your future at the Nou Camp, it is important that Messi likes you. As Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge would testify, Suarez is not the easiest strike partner to play alongside but Messi appears to be very fond of Suarez, and not just because they share a taste for Mate tea.
Gary Lineker once told a junior strike partner, only half-jokingly “your job is to make me look good”, and since arriving in Catalonia, Suarez has made Messi look very good indeed.
One of Luis Enrique’s biggest problems was that the glittering front three that led their attack in Manchester last night each endured a traumatic World Cup. Messi could not find the inspiration to turn the final, Neymar finished the tournament on a stretcher, Suarez finished it with a six-month ban from all football after the bite on Giorgio Chiellini.
Just as Eric Cantona changed in the wake of his 10-month suspension for launching himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park, so there are signs Suarez is a changing man.
He came to Manchester having picked up only three yellow cards and having set up an awful lot of Messi’s goals rather than score them himself. Early on last night he had an opportunity to shoot, one the Uruguayan would probably have taken had he still been at Anfield; instead he sought out a pass for Ivan Rakitic.
The colour of the shirt may have changed, with Barcelona maintaining their reputation for awful away kits with a bright yellow number, but as the first half wore on, the Etihad saw the Suarez they would have recognised from his seasons with Liverpool; the predator in front of goal. Had Joe Hart not saved when he was beautifully put through by Neymar, Suarez might have had a hat-trick before half-time.
This is a significant season for Barcelona in the Champions League. Those who had watched Messi destroy Manchester United on a sultry Wembley evening in the 2011 final might have struggled to imagine how this side might be dethroned.
Their last two tilts at the European Cup have seen them humbled 7-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich and then, once they had overcome Manchester City, beaten by the men of Madrid, not Real but Atletico.
This season they have lost some strange games in La Liga – to Malaga, Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad. The Clasico was lost badly. The press is typically unforgiving. When Robson managed Barcelona, he saw his side go from 3-0 down at the interval to win 4-3 and the headline that greeted him over breakfast was: “Manager Loses First Half, Players Win The Second.”
The Catalan press appear to want rid of Luis Enrique, just as Marca campaigned for Pellegrini to be sacked at Real. The European Cup may be his only lifeline. Had Messi converted his penalty, the second leg would be a formality.
The gap between Barcelona and Manchester City might have narrowed since last season but Pellegrini will have to go to the Nou Camp next month and win.
It was a task that proved beyond him in his goal-filled, trophyless season at Real Madrid and you imagine it will be beyond him now.
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