Arguably the most glamorous game in the club’s history, Manchester City finally shape up to face Barcelona in the Champions League last 16, after 64 days of drooling anticipation.
Of all the teams in the world, it’s the men from the Nou Camp who get the juices flowing when it comes to delivering the beautiful game in its purest form.
After being edged out of the Group D winners spot by reigning European Champions Bayern Munich, City were always going to be up against top class opposition, and they don’t come much classier than messrs Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Pedro, Sanchez…the list goes on.
City, having made it through the group stages of the CL at the third attempt, are finally seated at the top table of European football with the tie of the round.
They’re not exactly lacking glitz themselves with the likes of Kompany, Fernandinho, Silva, Yaya, Nasri and Negredo, albeit Aguero, the Argentine jewel in the crown, is sidelined until the 2nd leg.
All eyes will focus on the Etihad Stadium to see if a new order is about to dislodge, the regal masters of the CL format. Manuel Pellegrini has had the measure of Barcelona on four occasions in his nine seasons in La Liga, drawing another four, but losing 14 times.
Some would have you believe that Barca are in comparative decline, nonetheless, they sit aloft La Liga and will be contesting the Copa Del Rey against arch rivals Real Madrid.
The Catalonian masters may have been humbled by Bayern last season but they are formidable opponents, especially with the return of both Messi and Neymar from medium term injuries.
City will be buoyed by the return of their own highly influential Brazilian, Fernandinho. Recalled to the Brazil squad in the countdown to the World Cup, the box-to-box midfielder doesn’t grab headlines like Neymar, but he’s more influential to City than the Barca striker is to the Catalan giants.
City’s ‘water carrier’ is an imperative if Pellegrini is to deliver silverware – be it in the singular, but more likely, the plural this season.
Fears surrounding his absence had been slightly quelled by Javi Garcia’s excellent showing against Chelsea. Having both available will help dilute the undoubted potency of the ‘Blaugrana’ attack.
For City’s other powerhouse midfielder, Yaya, it promises to be a strange affair as he faces the club that he really didn’t want to leave in the first place, for the first time.
The Ivorian says he has nothing to prove against a team that he will always have in his heart, but cometh the hour, cometh the colossus and Yaya thrives on the big stage.
City and Barca have never met in a competitive fixture. It’s hardly surprising given the decades of barren scrubland that the Sky Blues frequented as the Spaniards ploughed the most fertile of furrows.
Inspired by the peerless Pep Guardiola, Barcelona reigned supreme with perhaps the definitive club team of all time between 2008-2011, winning the CL twice and being edged in a semi-final by a certain Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
This is a fixture that was light years away prior to Sheikh Mansour’s investment which began in the summer of 2008. It’s taken approximately 66 months and a mountain of cash, but City come into this tie on a level playing field.
The loss of Aguero is significant, but City should still have enough in their armoury to trouble a Barca backline that is by no means impenetrable.
Even with Captain Fantastic, Vincent Kompany, commanding City’s Ministry of Defence, the same can be said of the hosts. The pace and movement of the Barca attack, the guile of Iniesta and the speedy Sanchez will undoubtedly trouble a City side shorn of an in-form James Milner through suspension, and young centre back Matija Nastasic ruled out by injury.
It could become a shoot-out which will thrill the neutrals. Pellegrini’s resolute stance never to compromise his attacking style is mirrored by Gerardo Martino. Conversely City’s greatest take out from the game could be a score line that reads ‘…Barcelona NIL’ as away goals could be vital.
City have goals in them every game. If Barcelona needed to force the 2nd leg in three weeks time, who would bet against an Aguero-led attack hitting back on the counter and grabbing the glory.
Only Pablo Zabaleta remains from City’s last visit to the Nou Camp, back in August 2009, when a Martin Petrov strike earned a 1-0 pre-season victory in front of an astonishing and, equally astonished, crowd of 94,123.
A similar outcome would be more than acceptable at the Etihad. It would give City an advantage and an away goal in Spain would leave Barcelona needing at least three to win on the night.
Simply playing Barcelona in a competitive fixture is like a dream come true for a mass of City fans who never ever thought they’d see the day.
Pellegrini and his men view it differently, and rightly so. This is a winnable tie and one that, if negotiated successfully, will leave any prospective quarter final opponent wanting to steer clear of City.
Barcelona have been where City long to be. In Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, City have two of the prime architects who crafted Barca into such an irresistible and all-conquering force.
As City’s CEO and Director of Football, the duo are doing more than just replicating the Barca blueprint for success. The Etihad Campus will be Barca’s famed La Masia training facility and much more when it opens for business.
Folk scoffed at what City termed a ‘holistic’ approach when Manuel Pellegrini arrived last summer but the potential fruits of success are there for all to see. A domestic treble is a distinct possibility, but it’s the ‘Holy Grail’ of Champions League utopia that will prove the biggest obstacle to a most unlikely quadruple.
Whatever the outcome, Manchester City versus Barcelona will be a sumptuous occasion to savour and, for those privileged to be there, it will surely be a showpiece that will never be forgotten, come win lose or draw.
It’s an achievement in itself that the game is too close to call but that cannot and will not be the sum total of City’s ambition.
Manuel Pellegrini – precise and pragmatic – is a man on a mission and who would bet against him leading Manchester City to hitherto unchartered heights?
By David Walker