“We’re not really here….” Never did a football anthem more befit its club than Manchester City’s on Tuesday night. It was 15 years ago next month that their stumbling efforts to escape the depths of the Second Division were at full pitch, with a 2-1 home win over Notts County, and the fact that Barcelona’s players were in front of these supporters – standing where Oldham, Preston and Wycombe Wanderers had been, all beating them that bitter season – certainly took some believing.
They made an event of every aspect of the night – there was even an MC outside of the Colin Bell stand to turn the team coach arrivals into a festival moment – and yet when it came down to it the night turned on the most tangible evidence that the journey is still not complete. The weakness of both these sides was defensive and the sight of Barcelona’s defenders, dwarfed by City’s henchmen and tremulously trying to cope with a free kick that David Silva tipped into their area in the first half revealed that Manuel Pellegrini’s side could always take courage and hope. But City’s own fraility in the rearguard told in a more brutal way.
All summer long, Pellegrini longed to sign the Brazilian central defender Pepe – his top transfer target – from Real Madrid. And all summer long the Spaniards desisted. Even this week, in one of the interviews he has granted to Spanish press, Pellegrini lamented the Madrilenos’ unwillingness to let him have the man. And though clubs are always talking about the final piece in the puzzle – never quite complete – nights like this are capable of magnifying a squad’s little imperfections into gaping holes.
Martin Demichelis’s night was not entirely without its positive moments, before the game-changing incident which saw him dismissed and concede the penalty which will have City justifiably screaming injustice for a long time. He shepherded Alexis Sanchez away from danger and thumped a challenge into him in the first half which provided a brief sense of why Pellegrini has signed him twice, at Malaga before Manchester. But while Vincent Kompany was clinically – magisterially – precise in his spellbinding personal battle with Lionel Messi – the two perfect challenges inside the first ten minutes told their own story. The Argentine did look less adept. His two concessions of possession in an opening quarter of an hour in which Barcelona killed through possession told their own story, too.
Three of Tuesday night’s back four signed even before Roberto Mancini arrived and the sense that defence has not been attended unstitched what was otherwise a masterplan of pragmatism from Pellegrini.
There was always an understanding that the talk of his squad being a Barcelona in gestation – a “mini Barcelona” as it was put to the Spaniards’ coach on Monday night – who could possess the ball like them, command with it and kill with it, lacked realism. So Northern England met Catalonia last night with the kind of industrial work ethic which has always defined the place. That much was testament to Pellegrini – the man they call The Engineer.
The brand of football he has been asked to inculcate by his club’s executives, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, dictates that his team play one way – the Barcelona way – though there is evidence everywhere that the Chilean is his own man, too. The presence of Alvaro Negredo, for instance – a player whom Begiristain was not all that interested in signing last summer but who arrived because of Pellegrini’s persistent lobbying. Pellegrini dictated, too, that the team he sent out would be set up to soak up what Barcelona threw at them. He sent out all the signals that it would be the same “new City” on display in their first step to the Champions League football that really matters – “the most important thing is to continue being the same team you see every week” – but it was not.
Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov in the same City team has been virtually unheard of since Pellegrini took over – the two have appeared together only once this season – but they provided the extra defensive resilience, while the unexpected contribution from Kolarov was the offensive threat he caused Daniel Alves.
It was testament to the side which Pellegrini has compiled that they came back at Barcelona, time and again, with their ten men – and might well have scored as the game wore on. And then, as they pressed and tried, the weak spot showed again when, as Alves skipped into City’s area to take Neymar’s precisely weighted return pass, the flaw revealed itself again. Joleon Lescott stumbled on the turf and Alves was free to slip the ball through Joe Hart’s legs to complete the night. City’s road is not fully travelled just yet.
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