Manchester City will adopt the unaccustomed role of underdog when confronted by a cacophony of Catalan hostility in the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.
It’s a tag not often attached to a City side brimming with world class talent and lofty ambitions to dominate not just English football, but the European continent as a whole.
It may not fit Sheikh Mansour’s grand vision of years to come, but being written off does have its benefits for Manuel Pellegrini’s team.
Since arriving from Malaga last summer, the affable Chilean has been burdened with limitless expectations and scrutinised like no other manager by a warped UK media corps, willing him and the Abu Dhabi ‘project’ to failure.
The Champions League crown is the prize most eagerly sought by City’s generous benefactor and yet, perversely, Pellegrini is under little or no pressure, as he seeks to reverse a cruel and undeserved 2-0 1st leg deficit.
FC Barcelona’s official website revelled in the Spanish giant’s victory at the Etihad three weeks ago, proclaiming progress to the quarter finals was ‘…guaranteed’.
It’s a view shared by 99.9% of the pundits/experts/prats – call them what you will, depending on your pro or anti-City stance – but for once, it suits City that so little is expected of them.
Barcelona’s win, courtesy of an extremely dubious collection of Swedish turnips – i.e. the match officials – via a Lionel Messi penalty and a last minute strike by Dani Alves, would appear to give them an unassailable lead.
Like City, Barcelona’s best form of defence is attack. Like City, Barcelona’s back line can be exposed and exploited, with the centre back position the focus of any vulnerability.
Gerard Pique should be fit to return after injury alongside Javier Mascherano or even the veteran skipper Carles Puyol.
Puyol, for so long the embodiment of El Barca, announced his pending departure from the Nou Camp last week, with the wear and tear of life at the pinnacle of La Liga finally proving too much after 19 years.
Irrespective of who plays, none of them had the ‘pleasure’ of coming up against Sergio Aguero at the Etihad.
With 26 goals from 26 appearances this season and more than three hours of game time since returning from a hamstring injury, the Sergio Show is ready to ignite once again.
Even a ring rusty Aguero had a decisive role to play when City collected their first silverware of the season at Wembley. His deft ball control and pass to Aleksander Kolarov was instrumental in Samir Nasri’s wonder strike against Sunderland.
Nasri himself, now reproducing the form seen in his finest Arsenal days, was only a second half substitute against Barcelona in Manchester, due a combination of a lack of match fitness and tactical considerations.
Both the English and Spanish media were quick to suggest that City had been humbled and outclassed against the La Liga champions, when the truth was very different.
Pellegrini’s unconventional team selection with Kolarov deployed as a left sided midfielder in front of Gael Clichy, and Alvaro Negredo as a lone striker had, initially seemed somewhat bemusing.
The 0-2 score line was used as evidence that the sage-like ‘Engineer’ had miscalculated, screwed up… compromised City’s attacking potency. Pellegrini was an easy target for lazy and predictable journalism.
Prior to Messi’s conversion of the penalty that should never have been, Barcelona had hardly threatened Joe Hart’s goal.
Going one up and City going a man down with Demichelis’ dismissal changed the dynamic of a game, where Pellegrini had the tactical measure of Gerardo Martino.
Had City continued to frustrate Barca’s attack, who’s to say the men in sky blue wouldn’t have been the only side on the score sheet?
Barring a penalty shoot-out, City are going to need to score three in Barcelona, but with Aguero restored, Nasri firing on all cylinders and David ‘Merlin’ Silva full of trickery, how many of the on screen ‘oracles’ at Sky or ITV Sports, would wager their inflated salaries against a shock City win?
Pellegrini has very little to lose by sending his team out to attack the favourites with speed and tenacity. Some may consider it to be football suicide if he goes with Aguero, Negredo, Navas, Nasri and Silva from the start.
Both Chelsea and Inter Milan have shown in recent seasons how to go to the Nou Camp and frustrate their hosts with determined resistance and swift counter attacks. That said, neither were two goals adrift at the kick-off.
This time around Pellegrini can also call upon the warhorse, James Milner, suspended for the first game, whereas Demichelis is ruled out, courtesy of his red card at the Etihad. Most City fans would argue that both developments are meritorious.
Fair to say that Demichelis, derided on the terraces as ‘The Pony Tail’, is viewed with apprehension by the majority of City supporters.
The veteran Argentine is hardly fleet-of-foot and has a propensity to waste possession, but Pellegrini is no fool and continues to select him in preference to the soon-to-depart Joleon Lescott.
It’s not as if MP has an array of centre back riches from which to choose.
Matija Nastasic has still not recovered from injury, but even when fit the Serbian prospect has suffered from ‘second seasonitus’ with a dip in form. He is young and remains a great prospect but he is seemingly out of contention.
Javi Garcia has finally emerged as the player City supporters all imagined he would be when he was signed from Benfica. It must be hoped he stays that way and can actually fulfil the role envisaged, that of an ‘upgrade’ on fans’ favourite Nigel De Jong. It’s a very big ask!
Outstanding in the 2-0 FA Cup win over Chelsea, the Spaniard bolstered City’s defence during the League Cup Final win, in his preferred position as a holding midfielder. Both his confidence and his performances suffered when deployed as a stand-in central defender.
The choice is clear for the Nou Camp, it’s Captain Kompany commanding the City rear and inspiring Lescott to deliver a solid, no frills show to limit opportunities for Messi, Neymar, Sanchez, Pedro, Xavi, Iniesta & Co – it’s not asking much is it?
Aguero could be a profoundly positive factor, but it could fall to a Barcelona old boy to help City power through to an unlikely quarter final berth.
Yaya Toure’s sensational opener in the League Cup Final illustrated his profound worth to City, even when not at the top of his game.
City are so much more effective with the Ivorian in support of the main striker. If Pellegrini opts for a 4-4-2 formation with Aguero and Negredo up top, it will see Yaya in a more restrained role.
Alternatively, Aguero is more suited to a lone striker role than The Beast, who looked too isolated in the first leg in Manchester.
City cannot afford to lose the midfield battle. If Barcelona establish their neat ‘tippy-tappy triangular’ passing game, deny City possession and cause fatigue born of ball-chasing, this game could become a real pain in Spain.
It’s a tactical riddle and not one that many expect Pellegrini to crack.
At 2-0 down after just 12 minutes in the Allianz Arena, the big money was on City being blitzed by an embarrassingly large margin by Bayern Munich. Who could have foreseen a famous 3-2 win built on City dogged determination and endeavour?
Chile’s only internationally recognised breed of canine – the Chilean Fox Terrier – the Ratonero (Rat Hunter) – is renowned for its effectiveness when set to task.
City must hope that their leader possesses similar traits and the pedigree to steer his underdogs to a ‘best in class’ showing at the Nou Camp.
By David Walker