And so, another lesson if one was needed, that City are not yet ready to conquer, or terrorise, Europe. It was men against boys for 45 minutes, and by the time city woke up, it was too late.
All the talk before the match was of how City would not fall for the same mistakes as last season, and not be overly-cautious against the might of Barcelona, but perhaps that was in fact the team’s first mistake.
And as the team was announced, my fears were confirmed. You see, I don’t think City were overly-cautious last season. They were negating Barcelona for 50 minutes, and a misplaced pass, penalty and red card ruined all the tactics. We’ll never know of course, but it’s my theory they were keeping it tight for an hour or so before showing more ambition, playing with the two legs in mind. Either way, last year’s caution was a better tactic than this season’s “let’s-go-for-it” line-up, with the wonderful gift of hindsight.
So, two upfront. It made no sense to anyone bar the manager, but as those who know more about tactics will point out, it worked well for Bayern Munich when destroying Barcelona the other year. We’re not Bayern Munich though, and it relies on the forwards dropping to midfield, covering the pitch and working their socks off. Dzeko was far from the worst performer, but it’s not really his forte to show the required agility to play in such a role in such a game, but he did ok in my book. It was suicidal to play a proper 4-4-2 against a team that dominates in midfield as much as Barcelona. So naive in Europe again, and the stinging criticism obviously hit home with the manager when he should have ignored it and done his own thing. Or maybe this was his own thing, which is even more worrying.
However, a caveat. I’d say it’s not 4-4-2 in itself, it’s what you do with it and who you employ, as hinted above. Atletico Madrid can do it too, but I just don’t think we have the personnel to make it work against such teams, and thus five in midfield makes more sense. However, I didn’t know before kick-off what our team should be – I bet Barcelona fans did, and there’s another part of the bigger problem.
The first half was, quite simply, a disaster. City’s only chance of pulling off a result required incessant pressing of the away team, and this was sadly lacking, alongside a very square back line camped on the 18-yard line. Milner is a great player, and one I pray stays at the club past the summer, and he has put in a man-of-the-match performance at the Allianz Arena, but I don’t think he can do much alongside Fernando in a four-man midfield against Barcelona. They can just pass round him.
The first goal only took 16 minutes, and you can blame Kompany, but it was fortunate to be fair, an attempted block falling right back at the feet of the cannibal, and that was that. Then Kompany did what he does worst and went charging forward and diving in for no reason and Alba was freed on the left after more exquisite play from Messi and the full-back squared to Suarez who criminally wasn’t picked up and prodded the ball home ahead of a sprawling Demichelis.
All our worst fears were coming true. This was looking like a humiliating defeat on home soil, and you wondered just how many goals the Catalans would pick up. Messi was at his predictable best, an absolute joy to watch, utterly unplayable. Suarez has come into form for Barcelona, and Neymar is Neymar, another player of exquisite skill, as you’d expect for £80m. Rakitic keeps the midfield ticking over and Iniesta is quite simply one of the top three midfielders of his generation. Alba’s not bad either. The only potential weak link was the keeper, but there was little opportunity to test that theory. Another team came to the Etihad and showed perfect ball control and retention skills, whilst we looked nervous, pressured and panicky with the ball.
I was just happy then to get to half-time with no further goals. Alves (the ****) clipped the bar from wide, and apart from Dzeko heading comfortably wide, and a fumbled save by the keeper, there was little hope. Neymar had a lob cleared near the line by Zabaleta and Hart had to be alert to smother two other chances.
Thankfully, the attitude changed in the second half. Was the formation to blame after all? With the same 4-4-2, City were pressing much better, and creating chances. Aguero shot wide, Nasri had a great chance blocked and Dzeko spurned a header that was easier to score, hampered by a standing start, after a lovely flick on FROM A CORNER from Vincent Kompany.
The situation was helped though by Fernandinho coming on, who was far superior to the midfielders of the first half. Of course Barcelona had a two goal lead by now, so it would be natural for them to sit back somewhat and protect what they had, but I don’t think that argument totally holds as they still had the desire to seek further goals and that wouldn’t explain City creating chances. Anyway, eventually, City got a goal back. Clichy won the ball well from Messi, fed Silva who flicked it behind him for Aguero to pounce with a massive burst of pace, before finishing off the move with a goal that somewhat resembled a certain famous goal of seasons past.
City were definitely improved, and there was renewed hope, but that was extinguished with the third red card in a row against Barcelona. There can be few complaints either. It wasn’t the worst foul in the world as Clichy went for, and missed, a bouncing ball, and of course Alves was always going to act as though he had been shot, but it was a typical yellow in a European game. Clichy had paid for his slow reaction to getting to a loose ball contested earlier with Rakitic, which earned him his first yellow.
From this point on, I just wanted to walk away with a single goal deficit. City toiled manfully, but Bony wasn’t fully awake and he went for the same ball as Fernando resulting in a comedy shot wide, whilst Aguero dallied on the ball for too long and was tackled. Alba was denied by a superb Zabaleta tackle then pathetically feigned injury.
And that was almost that – Alves had a strop when subbed, Neymar argued with a City fan, and then Zabaleta lost the plot as the game came close to the end. No doubt the brilliance of Messi forces players to do stupid things, but Zabaleta’s lunge at Messi as he ran onto a Pedro flick was very poor indeed, and it seemed what little chance of progressing to the quarter finals was being extinguished. Thankfully, it seems that Lionel Messi, the best player I’ve ever seen grace the Etihad pitch, does have two weaknesses. Having missed three of his previous six penalties, he proceeded to have another saved by Hart, then somehow managed to head the ball wide. Penalties and diving headers – he is human after all.
So a single-goal defeat, which almost felt like a victory after the opening half-hour. Recriminations will be plentiful of course in the intervening three weeks, so where did it all go wrong?
Two things really. The team put out by Pellegrini was, in my opinion, all wrong, if not the formation. To give Fernando, a player who struggles with the likes of Hull City and Sheffield Wednesday, a start against the best front line in world football was ridiculous, especially overlooking Fernandinho in the process. No tackles, no aerial duels won, no clearances – and this wasn’t his worst game in a sky blue shirt if I’m honest. Clearly Pellegrini wanted a pure defensive midfielder on the pitch to screen the defence, but as we don’t have one capable of the job, picking “the octopus” wasn’t really the answer. City then failed to press, and the problems were exacerbated by the rather large, woolly-mammoth-sized elephant in the room, namely the continual erratic form of our club captain, who as a friend commented some weeks ago, seems permanently angry. Something’s not right anyway. City improved in the second half, but the damage had been done – and you have to ask why the team didn’t start that way and with the personnel that were on the pitch with 20 minutes to go. Nasri once more underwhelmed against top opposition, with a mere 31 touches in an hour (though we’ll always have that night in Rome), whilst Dzeko was reduced to spending much of the first half on the left wing. It clearly wasn’t working after the first goal went in, let alone the second one, and a braver manager would have made changes immediately. It could have been even worse because of Pellegrini’s inactivity, but credit to him for once more firing up the team at half-time and spelling out their responsibilities as the same eleven did improve after the interval.
But here’s the big reason, that some seem reluctant to grasp. Are you sitting comfortably? Well, the main reason Barcelona won this game is this – and it may shock you – they have a much better team than City. Their front two cost £140m, supplemented by the world’s greatest player, and sometimes you have to just admit we’re not on the same level. This is not a squad value comparison argument – whatever the players cost, their team is simply better man-for-man. This is partly due to Financial Fair Play, partly due to the academy not yet bearing fruition, partly due to not strengthening the team or squad sufficiently after our league title victories and whatever the reasons, it still comes down to them being better than us. This is not an excuse for losing – Atletico Madrid have prospered without spending hundreds of millions of pounds, but then Sid Lowe recently called Simeone’s achievements the greatest of any manager in the last 20 years, and he may have a point. Bayern Munich, for all their power and pillaging of any team that threatens their crown, haven’t spent huge sums either, so it’s not an excuse, but the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid go and spend £60m on a top-class player when needed, and the gulf shows. We have great players, but we sign Wilfried Bony – I think it’s a great signing, but I’m not sure it’s the type that will make us dominate Europe. The simple fact is, we have a long way to go to match teams like Barcelona. You may blame our Spanish executives, our manager, our players freezing on the big night, Michel Platini or someone else, but that’s the way it is. This summer is very important in determining which path we take in the near future- we must strengthen significantly next time around. This squad with the likes of Pogba and Reus in it would be a different proposition, one that could go up against any team as equals – but it’s not easy attracting top players like that – it’s still easier for the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid or Bayern Munich to do so instead.
After all, we wanted Isco (in sublime form at the moment, naturally), we wanted Hazard, and we’d love Messi and Guardiola too, but it’s really not that simple.
Milner and Fernando against Rakitic and Iniesta. Dzeko v Neymar. Messi v Nasri (or Silva!). There are no comparisons. When their lowest-key member of a front three is last season’s Premier League player of the year (by a country mile), then you know you’re up against it. We have a squad to win domestic trophies, but not one to conquer Europe. We can still do better though. And of what we did spend? We spent £40m on a defender six months ago who is still not ready for the Champions League “biggies” it seems. We kick out a player from the Champions League squad and effectively end his City career to include a new striker we put on the bench. Worth it was it?
The fact I won’t really miss Clichy in 2nd leg (his absence confirmed as soon so he picked up his first yellow card) tells you all we need to know about the squad deficiencies in Europe. We need a top class left back, a top class (left?)winger, and an ageing squad may be close to needing a major overhaul, with some major names getting no younger…
And for all the criticism of Kompany, he could do with help. He never has the same defensive partner for any period of time, and his rashness seems to at least partly stem from feeling the need to cover for others. With a top class defensive midfielder in front of him, a deeper defensive line and a regular partner, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation (as often).
In the end, it was a player who I don’t quite rate as top, top class – Joe Hart, who once more made me eat my words on a big night – he was excellent, the Man of the Match for City.
So what now? A ridiculous three-week gap until the return leg, and City need luck, skill and grit to pull this off. Perhaps a red card for the home side would help too (yeah, right!). Aguero up front, with Silva and Yaya behind? Yeah, why not…
As for the manager, his possible departure draws nearer if City go out. I have no doubt that the players thought the domestic cups not fully worthy of their attention, and all so we could concentrate on trying to get past a better team which would then leave us with three more huge hurdles to win a trophy our owners crave so much. Hope it was worth it lads. Having won both domestic cups in recent years, you’d hope that the players would want to experience that day at Wembley again (though not the Wigan one), If other fans wonder why we haven’t embraced the Champions League, they will point out it’s only because we’re not very good in it, and whilst there is an element of truth in that, with City putting in a ropey performance on day one, that doesn’t really tell the full story. I grew up dreaming about the FA Cup and the league, and it’s those trophies I still crave. It will change no doubt, but not yet. You’ll never hear me booing Abide With Me.
And so to another big match. A loss to Liverpool and the season, draws closer to a premature end. With Chelsea at Wembley though, it’s a chance to narrow the gap and put some pressure on the league leaders. Two up front?