The most prestigious competition in club football returns tonight in sensational style as the free-scoring powerhouses of England and Spain, Manchester City and Barcelona, meet at the Etihad in the stand out tie of the last 16.
Manuel Pellegrini’s men have advanced past the group stages of the competition for the first time, and have been rewarded with a daunting looking two-legged affair against the 2006, 2009 and 2011 European champions who although may be not as fearful as years previous, still hold masses of talent in their ranks that should cause their opponents problems throughout the 180 minutes.
City have been largely unplayable in this season’s Premier League, especially at the Etihad, where only a tactically-inspired performance from Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the start of the month has prevented them from holding a 100% record from their 12 games played. Amongst those 11 home victories were thrashings to top clubs; 6-3 against Arsenal, 6-0 against Tottenham and 4-1 over their bitter City rivals United. Norwich City were hit for seven without reply. Despite such commanding performances few, if any, can see a similar result against their opponents tonight.
Sergio Aguero is a key miss for City. Having scored 26 goals in 25 appearances this season, the Argentine is recognised as one of the world’s most feared strikers, and his movement, change of pace and trickery was bound to give Barcelona’s backline a difficult evening should he have recovered from his hamstring injury in time to start tonight. He hasn’t. It is however a different returning player that could indirectly prove frustrating for the Spanish visitors. Brazilian holding midfielder Fernandinho is expected to return to Pellegrini’s side, and this £30 million worth of authority and steel allows a player of significantly more value to be released from his defensive shackles and attempt to control the flow of the match. That player is Yaya Toure and of course, Barcelona and its players know all about him. Toure was often utilised as a defensive midfielder during his time at the Catalans, but when City spent significantly over £20 million and a reported £200,000 a week to lure the big Ivorian to their home, former manager Roberto Mancini found that Toure could cause chaos playing further forward. Pellegrini’s differing system of 4-4-2 to Mancini’s 4-2-3-1 has given the player even more attacking freedom, leading to his most successful season in terms of goals so far. Strong, fast, powerful and enduring, with an eye for a pass and a dead ball specialist, Toure looks the complete player. When you add to the mix the pace of Jesus Navas, the skill and vision of the mercurial David Silva and the presence of Alvaro Negredo, Barcelona have reason to worry this evening.
Conversely, it could be argued that City’s backline will also be wary of what they have to face when they look to the other side of the halfway line at around 7:45 this evening. The obvious threat is the phenomenal talents of Lionel Messi, who’ll team up with the missing Aguero at the World Cup in the summer. At 26, Messi holds all kinds of records and awards, and it could be conceived that he is approaching full fitness once more after an injury hit season disrupted his progress somewhat. A two goal salvo during Barcelona’s 6-0 demolition of Rayo Vallecano at the weekend, including a trademark lob from the edge of the box, only adds fuel to such fire. How City’s defence cope with the maestro will go a long way to determining which footballing giant will come out on top.
It isn’t all about Messi though. Whilst Barcelona were robbed of his services they still managed to stay in touch with the not unnoticeable talents of Real and Atletico Madrid, and the victory over Rayo saw them return to the top of the table on goal difference. The wealth of ability that runs through the Barcelona team is staggering – from the pace and stamina of attacking full backs Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, through to the creativity of Andres Iniesta and Xavi and up to the unerring clinical finishing of the forward players Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Brazilian Neymar – with the possible exceptions of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, the game at the Etihad tonight sees two of the best sides in the world on paper meet.
With such force available to them both clubs are strong believers that attack is the best form of defence. It is one of many similarities and links that the clubs share, with former Barcelona players and even directors now plying their trade in the blue of City. Both are European heavyweights, and both have the ability to win both their own domestic league and this brilliant, exciting competition. It is a huge match up. The world stops to watch at 19:45.