Barcelona present a surmountable challenge to Manchester City in the next round of the UEFA Champions League, writes Adam Davern.
When the draw for the last sixteen of the UEFA Champions League was made a fortnight ago, most people felt that Manchester City were in big trouble, having finished second in their group. They now have to face the mighty FC Barcelona in the next round. However although Barcelona are an exceptional team they are certainly not as special as they were under Pep Guardiola a few years ago. This is due to the fact that Tata Martino is relying more on individual talent rather than team effort. The new coach has come in and tried to promote a more direct style of play. There is nothing wrong with that, but what Martino has failed to realise is that this style does not suit players like Xavi and Iniesta, two of the most influential performers in the Barca squad. Because of this transitional period, there is no doubt that City can get a result over two legs against the Catalan giants.
There is no team structure in the Spanish champions at the moment, with too many players doing their own thing. Some (Messi, Puyol) are injured, while others (Sanchez, Song) are not on form. Tata Martino’s decision to stretch the team using direct football much more often than in previous years has limited their influence as a unit. They are still having possession but, as we have seen against both Athletic Bilbao and Levante, the majority of it is being held in their own half. There are also too many diagonal balls being played which stops them from pressing high up the pitch, another key element of Guardiola’s philosophy.
Martino is trying to evolve Barca’s style so that they mix long balls with their trademark intricate short passing. Victor Valdes is being encouraged to launch the ball long towards the front men. This is the exact opposite of how Guardiola constantly stressed how important it was for Valdes to play it short to Pique and Puyol in order to start attacks from the back. The more direct, box-to-box football suits Messi, Neymar and Fabregas – who are now becoming the key axis of Barcelona – but does not display the strengths of the talented midfield trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. All three have shown glimpses of greatness this season but injury and Martino’s rotation policy have reduced their playing time with one another.
Manchester City are arguably the worst possible rival for Barcelona right now. I say that because of their physicality at the back and in midfield. Players like Kompany, Fernandinho and Yaya Tourè have the perfect balance of power and skill to upset the Barcelona system. Playing long balls up to Messi and Neymar will be pointless if they have to compete with City’s powerhouses. The Sky Blues’ pacey strike-force of Aguero and Negredo should also cause plenty of problems for a Barca back four that has really struggled this season, especially from set-pieces and away from home. City normally play very deep inside their own half, so there will be precious little space for the likes of Messi and Neymar to run around in.
The first leg will be played in the Etihad Stadium and it is vital that Manchester City get a positive result at their home ground in order to demoralise Barca for the away leg. Barcelona have conceded four goals from corners against lesser opposition this season, so you imagine City will try to exploit this area with their superior height. The Catalans also tend to play worse away than they do at home so they will require a very good Cesc Fabregas and an even better Lionel Messi on the night if they want to get an away goal in the East Midlands. If they fail to score against City in England, the return leg at the Nou Camp could be a very nervous affair for Barcelona as they chase the game. Man City will have to stand tall but they certainly have the calibre of players to do so. Manuel Pellegrini’s men have got all the weapons needed to knock Barcelona out, so do not be surprised if it happens, given the right opportunities and the right performance with a hint of good fortune along the way.
Pundit Arena, Adam Davern.
Featured Image By Jon Candy (Flickr: DSC04205) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.