Manchester City vs Barcelona: The night Pep Guardiola's side announced themselves on the European stage

This was the win which broke the hex that Barcelona have held over City in these past few years, secured at the sixth time of asking

Ian Herbert
Chief Sports Writer
Tuesday 01 November 2016 22:57 GMT
Ilkay Gundogan celebrates his first goal for Manchester City
Ilkay Gundogan celebrates his first goal for Manchester City (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

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There was not a flicker of emotion from Pep Guardiola when the decisive goal which can allow Manchester City to revise their perspective on European football flew in, despatched from a free kick Kevin de Bruyne dipped over the Barcelona wall. But appearances and Guardiola can be deceptive. He will have felt the vast significance.

This was the win which broke the hex that Barcelona have held over this club in these past few years, secured at the sixth time of asking. It was the win rich in irony and symmetry, given that City’s Spanish chief executive and director of football have been creating a corner of Catalonia in eat Manchester since they arrived.

But more than that, it was a result which will allow City to put the struggles and stumbles which this competition has represented in the past. The Champions League has certainly brought them pecuniary wealth - £88.8m last year, as semi-finalists: more even than last year’s winners Real Madrid, UEFA data revealed on Tuesday. But there has been a spiritual deficit. The atmosphere has been dead, the mood malign with the supporters’ boos for UEFA. A full 20 minutes of last night’s game had passed and City fans were still arriving to take their seats.

Guardiola: Man City beat 'the best team in the world'

That moribund spirit was swept away in what happened next. For a time, it was the City that this stadium has been programmed to know – defensively vulnerable, centrally wide open, as Barcelona began to carve them open. But then came the ‘willingness’ which on Monday Guardiola had said several times was necessary: the resolve to chase, harry and induce mistakes. The pressing to death of Barcelona, in the way that they have strangled so many teams. By the mid-point of the second half, Guardiola was making clear his fury with Pablo Zabaleta for playing a 20-yard back pass to his goalkeeper. Forward was the only direction he was prepared to let this side look.

To understand the import of the win, it is necessary to go back to the start of the night because for half an hour Guardiola looked like yesterday’s man.

In Barcelona, they even had a word for the way he used to change things. ‘Guardiolada’ was a tactical innovation used for a big game and for the purposes of that match alone. The general impression provided by the first period was that Luis Enrique was the innovator now; that his is the side which is moving on, leaving Guardiola struggling to harmonize with the same tune.

“With Luis [Suarez] maybe now we are a bit more aggressive when we attack at speed, whilst with Pep we used counter-attacks less,” Lionel Messi said earlier this week. His goal was a metaphor for that: a counter-attack of maybe 20 seconds’ duration, which Messi began by blocking a shot in his own penalty area, before running the length of the pitch to take back from Neymar and score.

From Barcelona, the metronomic, almost cloying, passing – the ‘carousel’ as Sir Alex Ferguson called if after Guardiola’s players had passed Manchester United to death in the 2009 Champions League Cup final – has gone. But it is not needed with trident of forwards. ‘Nearly unstoppable’, Guardiola had called the two wide members of that triumvirate – Neymar and Messi. When Nicolas Otamendi surrendered cheap possession, Neymar was bearing down on Willy Caballero like a guided missile. It took a very fine save to palm his shot away.

This slip was part of a broader problem, as City’s attempts to match the Spaniards’ pace bred errors. That same pace initially made City’s forwards look almost sluggish by comparison. Aguero had a chance wide right to supply a cross two minutes after Barcelona led and took what seemed an eternity to deliver the cross which hit the first obstacle in its path, Samuel Umtiti.

But City were not ready to drop into another abyss and Guardiola’s demands are the reason for that. Aguero has been reduced to life on the edge here, recalled on Tuesday night but knowing that his place is no longer a God-given right. He had a point to prove and made it, having a say in all three goals, if the pass which drew the foul and decisive free-lick is included.

Guardiola recorded a famous victory against his former side
Guardiola recorded a famous victory against his former side (Getty)

Guardiola may feel the Argentine has more to offer. He has said he wants Aguero to be a greater presence in the six-yard box, raining shots on goal, and here he was principally a provider, operating deep. In the second half, though, Enrique’s players could not come close to him. Nor to David Silva, the mercurial talent whose movements and instincts were sharper and more unpredictable than any other player on the pitch. By the end they were rocked back on their heels, desperately trying to stem the attacking movements to which Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne added.

Guardiola’s handshake for Enrique was brief and business-like and City do still have work to do to qualify from Group C, with a trip to Borussia Monchengladbach which may be challenging. But this was the night when they finally stood up and announced themselves to Europe.

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