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.
Manchester City v Barcelona: The 10 most dangerous Barcelona players
Manchester City v Barcelona: The 10 most dangerous Barcelona players
1/10 Lionel Messi (Position: Centre Forward)
The Argentine aims to showcase his renewed supremacy after an unprecedented injury lay-off and accusations of apathy by Barcelona's former assistant manager Angel Cappa. His current tally of 24 goals in 27 games is underwhelming by his standards but by no means indicative of a lack of passion. He has scored six goals in his last six games against English opposition, has netted six in his last three in the Champions League, and notched six in his last seven appearances. Moreover, he just became the third highest goal-scorer in the history of La Liga at 26-years-old. He is a frightening player.
Games: 27 Goals: 24 Assists: 11 (season stats across all competitions)
2/10 Neymar (Position: Forward Left)
The 22-year-old sensation isn’t expected to start against the Sky Blues, as he is still recovering from a lengthy absence with an ankle injury. He could still feature however, managing to play in 29 minutes of Barcelona’s 6-0 thumping against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday. The slippery forward is yet to replicate the magnificent goal-scoring form he exhibited in Brazil, scoring 42 goals in 47 appearances in 2012, but remains a dangerous prospect for any defence. He hasn’t scored against English opposition, but the last time he netted on English soil was against Scotland at the Emirates Stadium in 2011, firing in a brace.
Games: 34 Goals: 15 Assists: 17
3/10 Alexis Sanchez (Position: Forward Right)
The Chilean forward has been a revelation for the Catalan outfit this season. After an abject two seasons with the club, with many anticipating his exit, he has somehow managed to overshadow fellow teammates Neymar and, to a certain extent, Messi. The 26-year-old has already surpassed his goal tally from last season, scoring 21 goals in all competitions – including a brace against England in November – and is currently Barcelona’s top scorer in La Liga with 15 goals.
Games: 38 Goals: 21 Assists: 14
4/10 Pedro (Position: Forward Left)
The last time the Spaniard faced a team from Manchester, he scored the opening goal and paved the way towards a comfortable Champions League Final victory. The prospect of facing this cash-imbued Manchester City side is perhaps a little more daunting but, now at 26-years-old, the marauding forward will want to claim a third Champions League medal by progressing past another strong Mancunian team. He will threaten with his pace and guile, but Manuel Pellegrini’s men will need to be wary of his diagonal runs – if he starts.
Games: 39 Goals: 17 Assists: 9
5/10 Cesc Fabregas (Position: Centre Midfield)
Cesc Fabregas has played superlative football under Gerardo Martino this season. The newly appointed manager has elicited a 'more intelligent' style, claims Fabregas, which has enabled the Spanish playmaker to manifest the excellent form he showcased at Arsenal. The 26-year-old may play further forward against Pellegrini’s side as the former Gunner, who scored two goals against Manchester City during his eight year tenure in North London, will have his eye on inducing an upset at the Etihad.
Games: 37 Goals: 13 Assists: 20
6/10 Andres Iniesta (Position: Centre Midfield)
Speculation was rife at the nascent stages of this campaign, seeing the midfield maestro linked to City’s rivals Manchester United. The Spaniard committed to a three-year-contract shortly thereafter, quashing any rumours of a potential shock departure. Iniesta has won everything in football, and is bitterly remembered by Chelsea fans for his last minute winner in a Champions League Semi-final against the Blues in 2009. The 29-year-old is still an important figure under Martino, as he flaunted his wizardry in Barcelona’s 6-0 thumping of Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
Games: 36 Goals: 1 Assists: 6
7/10 Xavi (Position: Centre Midfield)
The playmaking veteran has experienced fluctuations under the wing of Gerardo Martino. Whilst he has looked somewhat laboured this season, he has produced moments of magic. There are questions surrounding whether the 34-year-old will start at the Etihad, as he did not feature in Barcelona’s recent opposition trouncing in La Liga. Nevertheless, Xavi will provide an added calm and ball retention capacity for the Catalans. He scored an important goal against Arsenal that saw Barcelona progress through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2011, and will intend on replicating that feat against the Sky Blues.
Games: 31 Goals: 3 Assists: 5
8/10 Dani Alves (Position: Right Back)
Renowned as one of the more attacking full-backs in modern football, Dani Alves has been paramount to Barcelona's recent history. Despite lacking somewhat defensively, the 30-year-old has compensated for his frailties at the back through his attacking work rate. The Brazilian hasn't featured as much under Martino but will still provide pace and perpetual assaults down the flanks, if chosen to represent the Spanish side. He featured in Barcelona's Champions League final against Manchester United in 2011 and delivered a stellar performance to claim his second medal in the European competition.
Games: 29 Goals: 2 Assists: 2
9/10 Sergio Busquets (Position: Centre Midfield)
The Spaniard is regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe. At 25-year-old, he spends the majority of his time sitting in front of the central defence and occasionally filling in gaps left by the marauding full-backs if needed. Busquets will be used to cancel out prospective City attacks – especially on the counter-attack – through relentless pressure towards opposition forwards. It is worth noting that he is prone to theatrics on occasion, so the Sky Blues have to be wary of reacting to Sergio, as he might react in a way which induces a costly booking.
Games: 32 Goals: 3 Assists: 1
10/10 Jordi Alba (Position: Left Back)
The 24-year-old has struggled to demonstrate his true capacity this season, after a three month injury lay-off at the beginning of the campaign. Having said that, the Spaniard will be forced to recover his form against Manchester City – assuming he is not replaced by makeshift utility Brazilian, Adriano. The Spanish full-back is often confused for a winger, as he is constantly ploughing forward and providing width for the Catalan outfit. He could be a dangerous outlet for Barcelona if given the opportunity to move forward.
Games: 17 Goals: 0 Assists: 1
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."
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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