How many times have you beaten Barcelona? Jesus Navas ponders the question. “Three times... at least.”
Barcelona are the greatest, cleanest brand in world football. They are the Welsh rugby team of the 1970s, the West Indies of Viv Richards and Michael Holding, the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1960, their great manager Helenio Herrera addressed journalists at Birmingham Airport with the words: “You English have much physical strength, but no method, no technique.” The script demands that they do not lose.
And yet the Catalans do lose and in England they lose quite a lot. Their first appearance in England came in October 1957 when they faced Birmingham City in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. They lost 4-3.
Since then they have been beaten at Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea, Leeds, Liverpool, Ipswich, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Newcastle. Only one English club, Liverpool, have ever won at the Nou Camp against Barcelona. One thing is clear: if Manchester City are to make the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the winning will have to be done tomorrow.
You imagine Navas and the man he played alongside, at both Seville and now in Manchester, will be City’s most obvious weapon at the Etihad Stadium. In March 2011 they combined to score Seville’s equaliser against Barça in the Ramon Pizjuan. Alvaro Negredo muscled his way past Dani Alves and cut the ball back for Navas to head home.
Usually, it has been the other way round. Negredo remarked he was so certain where Navas would put the ball that he would start his run without even looking up to watch the cross being struck.
“We have known each other for a long time,” said Navas. “We work together every day and we enjoy our football. But it is not only Alvaro, we have plenty of dangerous strikers for Barcelona to face. They won’t enjoy coming to Manchester. They will find we are a really difficult team to beat here. We are playing very well, creating chances, scoring a lot of goals. Barça won’t be happy to be here.”
Saturday’s emphatic victory over Chelsea in the FA Cup has soothed nerves that were starting to become frayed at the Etihad. Manuel Pellegrini suggested the storm that had forced the postponement of Wednesday night’s game with Sunderland had given his players a breathing space.
“The team wanted revenge,” said the Manchester City manager. “Not just for the League defeat by Chelsea but for the draw at Norwich. I didn’t think the team was fresh enough for those games.
“The moment the game against Sunderland was postponed, it gave them some relief. We could have a training session on Thursday and Friday and we haven’t been able to do that for two and a half months. That’s why I was absolutely sure we were going to play as well as we did against Chelsea.
“This will be two good teams coming together. It’s good for the fans, good for everyone. I love football, I love good matches and I don’t have any fear about playing Barcelona because this side has to develop the mentality to play against important teams. They have a great team and the best player in the world but this is a chance to show how good we are.”
Lionel Messi has scored only once in England – the goal came in the European Cup final against Manchester United at Wembley, in which he seemed utterly mesmeric. Messi warmed up for his return to the Champions League with two goals as Barcelona destroyed Rayo Vallecano 6-0 in the Nou Camp.
“What’s he like on the pitch?” Navas gave a little laugh. “Very difficult to stop, to be honest with you. You have to put pressure on him early, make sure you are close to him when he gets the ball – and don’t let him create space.”
There are suggestions that Barcelona are not the club they were. This season they have been beaten by Bilbao and Valencia and been unable to shake off the challenge from Atletico Madrid.
“They are still alive in all competitions,” said Navas. “Maybe they are not playing as well as they did three or four years ago but that’s normal; rivals study the way you play and find tactics to counteract your strengths. Cycles in football don’t last for ever.”
Navas pointed out that the Spanish champions are vulnerable to set pieces and counter-attacks, although Pellegrini’s plan is not to draw Barcelona in but to attack them from the off.
Even this far out from kick-off, it seems a dangerous strategy, especially as Fernandinho, the midfielder best equipped to shield Manchester City’s back four, is unlikely to start.
“The reality is that this type of game has served us really well this season,” said Navas. “It is a style that we particularly enjoy but it will be difficult to impose it on Barcelona because they also want a lot of the ball and it will be very intense on our side.”
It was a plan that came apart spectacularly against Bayern Munich, who cantered to a 3-1 win in October. “That wasn’t one of our best performances,” said Navas. “They scored very early on and that made things very difficult for us but you have to remember that in Munich we played very well after going behind and won playing our own style of football.
“Experience will be a factor in this tie but I hope it is not the decisive factor.”
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