Out-of-sorts Barcelona still too much for Man City
Lionel Messi mesmerises as homeside end visitors’ European dreams for another year
Lionel Messi of Barcelona flicks the ball past goalkeeper Joe Hart of Manchester City to score the opening goal at Camp Nou. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
Barcelona 2 Man City 1 (Barcelona win 4-1 on aggregate)
It is a tough, unforgiving competition and Manchester City once again have been consigned to the role of jealous onlooker. Lionel Messi tortured them at times. He was a blur of speed and movement and the unfortunate truth for Manuel Pellegrini is that, at this level, Joleon Lescott is always likely to give his opponents something.
Messi had tormented Lescott to the point that the City defender looked panicked by the time he unwittingly played his part in the only goal of the night that really mattered. Already leading 2-0 from the first leg in Manchester, an air of inevitability descended as soon as Messi nonchalantly clipped his shot past Joe Hart.
Vincent Kompany levelled the match with a couple of minutes left, turning in the substitute Edin Dzeko’s header from a corner, but a goal at that time was largely an irrelevance. Just for good measure, Barca quickly set about restoring their lead, with Andres Iniesta setting up Dani Alves.
Another disappointing night for City in Europe also saw Pablo Zabaleta sent off, incensed that the French referee Stephane Lannoy had not awarded his team a penalty and taking his protests so far he was shown a second yellow card.
This is not the devastating, pass-the-opposition-to-death Barca that bewitched the sport in the Pep Guardiola years. They can still dazzle with the speed of their football and, of course, there is no more electrifying sight in football than Messi with the ball at his feet, picking up speed and hurdling challenges as if they were a series of invisible trip-wires. Yet they came into this tie after slipping to third in La Liga, on the back of three defeats in their last six games. Gerardo Martino’s side have come in for intense criticism in the Catalan media and it was always going to be a case of whether City could score first and bring out any underlying sense of nervousness inside Camp Nou.
They had to show restraint, as every opponent here does, but they also had to be bold when they had the ball. A team in this position cannot just go for all-out attack and risk being picked off. City’s tactics were based on common sense, defending in numbers then breaking out quickly on the counter-attack, and though they had to withstand some concerted pressure there were other moments when they flooded forward and worried their opponents.
City certainly began brightly, but it also became apparent that this was not going to be an occasion when the home side opened themselves up to allegations of under-estimating their opponents. Messi could be seen inside the opening few minutes chasing Sergio Aguero all the way from the centre circle, finally dispossessing him on the edge of his own penalty area. Soon afterwards, Messi tried his first slalom through the City defence, getting all the way to Hart before being stopped. It was the first warning for Pellegrini’s men and, by half-time, the contingent of City supporters in the most vertiginous point of this stadium must have been alarmed by the pressure building on Hart’s goal.
Messi was a constant menace in those moments. Neymar, though a grade or two down on his colleague, was another elusive opponent while Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta orchestrated proceedings in their midfield positions. Neymar side-footed the best chance of the first half into the side netting, after a slip from Aleksandar Kolarov, and City were also indebted to a trigger-happy linesman after Xavi had split open the entire defence to send Jordi Alba into the penalty area from an onside position. Alba’s pass had left Neymar with the chance to roll the ball into an empty net and a goal at that stage would have effectively extinguished the contest with only 19 minutes played.
David Silva, City’s most lively attacker, put one effort over the crossbar and a lovely flick from Yaya Toure’s through ball gave Samir Nasri an even better opportunity to open the scoring. Yet this was a fairly wretched night for Aguero, who suffered the indignity of being substituted at half-time, and will not care to be informed that the only occasion he successfully passed to a team-mate was direct from the kick-off.
Dzeko replaced him and quickly made his presence felt, denied a 52nd-minute goal only by Victor Valdés clawing his header away from beneath the crossbar. Now City were emboldened, playing with greater adventure. Zabaleta flashed another chance wide. Soon afterwards, Gerard Piqué had to produce a saving tackle on Fernandinho inside the six-yard area. From City, it felt like a definite change of tempo.
Messi, however, was still tormenting City, shimmering with danger. Lescott just could not keep up him as the four-time Ballon d’Or winner waltzed outside him and rolled a shot against the upright. It was not the first time Lescott had looked vulnerable and when it happened the next time, unable to intercept Cesc Fábregas’s through ball and inadvertently playing the final touch to Messi, it was a gift that a player of this quality was not going to pass up.