Manchester City v Barcelona: Barcelona blueprint installed at City faces the key test
Manchester City's owners have made no secret of their desire to emulate the achievements of their Champions League opponents
In any other season, Manuel Pellegrini's observation on Manchester United might be characterised as a calculated barb but it did not feel that way. The Manchester City manager does not go in for all that confected, Mourinho-style psychological nonsense anyway, but the Chilean's observation about there being only "one team in Manchester" was a simple, unalloyed statement of fact. It was offered in Spanish at the end of a press conference which found him in uncommon light mood, smiling when the former England manager Fabio Capello's definition of the only way to deal with Lionel Messi – "with a rifle" – was put to him.
Barcelona have always been United territory – from the Rome and Wembley finals of 2009 and 2011, to the semi-final of 2008 – and it has been a measure of City's place in the shadows of Manchester that they have not even played them in a competitive match before. Yes, they would have liked this first encounter to have come with the light nights, but this match will allow them to look in the mirror and see how far they have come. Because Barcelona are most certainly the club City want to be.
The culture of Tuesday night's opposition is written into the core of new City: from Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, the executives City's Abu Dhabi owners have asked to fashion the same sustainable excellence at the Etihad that they did at the Nou Camp, to marketeers like Esteva Caldaza, building revenues on the back of glories.
The two institutions are not the same– only one of them is a global institution and City's need for accelerated growth has meant them buying more of what the Catalans have had time to nurture. Perhaps that explains the distinct lack of anxiety around City heading into a two-leg tie in which elimination would be far less forgivable for their opponents.
Questions do surround City's capacity to claim a scalp on the Continent after the anticlimax of group stage defeats to Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the past two years. But for the club's supporters there is a sense that being here at this threshold is an achievement in itself. "Of course I understand [the significance for them]," Pellegrini said. "I am absolutely sure the fans will enjoy to play this game."
The probable return of Fernandinho, lithe and leaping for the ball in open training in a way that suggested his thigh injury is behind him, was the most significant piece of information Pellegrini disclosed and in his words and demeanour there was a measure of how City are a team to fear now. He answered honestly, rather than entirely diplomatically, the question of whether the Spanish side's power had receded slightly since that Wembley final, with Chelsea, Internazionale and Bayern Munich all denying them this trophy since. "It is a different team," he said. "It is very difficult to continue in the same level Barcelona played three years ago."
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The sentiment was a reasonable one. Gerard Pique volunteered the thought that other clubs "don't fear us as much because we didn't win the Champions League" and Barcelona are not the side they were in 2011, even though the scale of their drift from the levels they attained under Pep Guardiola has been overstated. There was a sense of dismay in Catalonia when the round of 16 draw was made and City's name came out.
Yet it was the Catalan principle of only playing one way which led Pellegrini to declare that he would not be cowed into a more submissive kind of football. He is demonstrating less pragmatism as City manager than at Villarreal, as Soriano and Begiristain ask him to do it their way and he willingly complies.
"You always must consider important things but the most important thing is to continue being the same team you see every week in the Premier League," he said. "To continue having the same style of play and the personality, but you cannot continue without thinking they have Messi and other important players. We are not just going to think about defending but what we can do with the ball. That is the most important thing."
United thought they could go down that road, too. They played Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick in central midfield against Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta two years ago and everyone remembers the gulf in class which that Wembley night revealed.
The only sensitivities belonged to Yaya Touré, whose attacking instincts have led another marshal of the City midfield, Dietmar Hamann, to describe him as a "defensive liability." No smiles from Touré when the question of whether the City fans' "Yaya-Kolo" song is one he sings in the shower, and a more irritated response than might have been expected when his departure from Barcelona in 2009 – forced upon him by limited chances – was put to him. His prickliness was perhaps testament to having something to prove.
But he was an exception to the rule. It is 11 years – and yet a lifetime – since Barcelona were last received here, for the inaugural game in the then Eastlands stadium, which was one of the prime attractions which persuaded Abu Dhabi to buy the club. "I think the stadium will be the making of this club," said the then manager Kevin Keegan. "We're the luckiest team in the world to have a stadium like this. We've got to turn it to our advantage." A prophetic statement indeed.
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