There’s something very admirable about Manchester City, almost akin to watching a bank robber try to pickpocket another bank despite knowing better. They’re very much the near antithesis of Roberto Mancini’s side – where even though he had comparable talent – those City sides weren’t as seamless nor had the continuity the current iteration has.
Admittedly these statements lend towards the side of narratives, something that I’ve tend to consider as white noise, but even I found myself respecting Manchester City and some of the internal resolve they displayed in this game.
The game itself was more something that resembled an NHL game, with the little tackles here and there that restricted the flow of the game. The hype that built around perhaps the most feared goal scoring side in England against the aura that Barcelona has built over the last half decade or so didn’t necessarily materialize in the way the neutral fan wanted, but it was a spectacle through and through.
The penalty on Martín Demichelis was a result of numerous events coming into fruition, proof of the random variation exists in football, despite what some essentialist football commentators want you to believe. If a foul is given for the challenge on Jesus Navas, the penalty doesn’t happen. If Andres Iniesta’s pass isn’t weighted as perfectly as it was, the penalty doesn’t happen. What happens if Sergio Busquets doesn’t make the run that opens up the opportunity for Iniesta’s pass? Was the penalty actually even a penalty or was it a free kick?
All of this isn’t fully excusing Demichelis but simply weighing the factors that led to the tackle by Demichelis. The sad part of that sequence of events is that it’ll overshadow a solid performance Demichelis had enjoyed up to that point. Well, solid relative to what Demichelis is as a footballer. It was a moment that might signal the end of Manchester City’s run in the Champions League.
There are positives to take away for Manchester City – though the idea of moral victories is very tough to swallow. With 11 men on the field, they did a rather good job in playing something of a hybrid version of what Chelsea pulled in the 2012 Champions League Semi-finals vs Barcelona. The midfield of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho held their own, and the Ivorian displayed – in scattered moments – the attacking instincts that have been absent for the most part in the last few weeks. Negredo did an admirable job as the lone striker in a variation of a 4-2-3-1, while City until late held on with 10 men on the field, creating half decent chances themselves.
Barcelona will look on a job well done. Two away goals – including the obligatory Messi goal – has them in the driver seat with the second leg at the Camp Nou. They were as advertised, short passes galore, and having the fantastic four midfielders of Xavi/Fabregas/Iniesta/Busquets created the gulf in possession numbers that followed. The man advantage allowed the attacking instincts of Dani Alves to shine. He scored the second goal off of a fun little interchange with Neymar, potting it through the five-hole of Joe Hart. He could’ve had two when he blasted a shot just wide earlier in the second half.
He’s not the only one who deserves plaudits for Barcelona. Cesc Fabregas was solid, interchanging positions with Iniesta whenever Barcelona set-up shop in City’s own third. Javier Mascherano did a fine job against Alvaro Negredo, and Iniesta played as only Iniesta can, with his selective and timely dribbling initiating one-two passing opportunities to get into the box. This wasn’t a dominant performance but it was workman like, exerting the necessary amount of energy that a game of this magnitude required.
As a person who lives in Western Canada, getting to watch someone of the quality that Xavi possesses can be difficult, often leading to illegal streaming that carry with it the faint chance of harming my laptop beyond repair (a laptop that I only got in October). I don’t have the income to order Gol TV so my viewing of Xavi over the years has been at times limited to just the Champions League and international tournaments. He’s 34 years old and he’s edging towards the end of his career, a career that’s as vaunted as any in modern football. He’s perhaps the greatest player that Spanish football has ever produced, his trophy list extends as far as the eye can see.
His passing is one of the defining qualities for spurring a generation of Spanish “Tiki Taka”. He’s been part of Barcelona for eons, and will likely carry him to a job with the club when he retires for professional soccer. He was clinical in his passing vs. City, remarkable considering the volume of passes attempted. We should treasure what is left of Xavi’s magnificent career, one that’s left a huge impact on the success that his domestic and international side have garnered.
The second leg of this matchup won’t take place till March 12, and perhaps by then Manchester City will be able to trot out their fully fit starting 11 that includes the wonderful Sergio Aguero. The task is daunting and having to make up the two goal deficit makes it a near impossibility. This season for City has been one of redemption, regaining what was accomplished when Aguero’s right foot vs QPR handed City their first Premier League title in 44 years. Making it to the round of 16 is a huge step forward for City’s progress as a club, and perhaps the experiences that have been forged will be used as a true launching pad for what will come in the future.
Barcelona themselves have visions of a third Champions League trophy in six years, a remarkable achievement that needs no further words. This is artistry that football is capable of drawing. Just imagine how good it will be when the utensil gets upgraded.