And now Sergio Agüero’s pre-match warning, though rather demotivating for Manchester City fans to hear, becomes a little more salient. Except a second half performance in which our defence cracked like the top of a Crema Catalana ensured Lionel Messi need not be any where near his best to score a hat-trick in this 4-0 drubbing.
Agüero, a friend of Messi’s if you didn’t already know, was left out of the starting XI for this game – the type of high profile fixture Guardiola, nor any other manager in world football, would have even thought about leaving Messi out of. Excuse the witch hunt I seem to have embarked on in the past couple of days but in hindsight, after watching Agüero rush into the arms of Luis Suárez at the final whistle and enjoy a pleasant little chuckle with the Barcelona striker while I, and many other fans, sat there ready to glass someone, it was the correct decision. Packing the midfield may have been at the forefront of Guardiola’s thinking as he opted for Kevin De Bruyne ahead of Agüero as a false nine at the Camp Nou, but I suspect he’s detected a little defeatism in the Argentine like the rest of us. This was the kick up the arse Agüero needed.
And although this unfamiliar system, which saw Raheem Sterling, Nolito, David Silva, İlkay Gündoğan and Fernandinho pestering Barcelona successfully in the first half, actually seemed to work well, Guardiola was undone not by the immutable brilliance of Messi, but by the mistakes of his own players. “I don’t know what instructions I can give my players to control the talent [Messi],” said Guardiola before the Champions League Group C tie; the agonising thing about this loss is that before our players welcomed him in through the door, Messi had been kept on a leash.
Fernandinho was the first to offer the 29-year-old inside, slipping on the penalty spot and allowing the world’s deadliest finisher to round Bravo for 1-0. But City were spurred on by the injustice of the matter and continued to search for openings in Luis Enrique’s defence. Gündoğan did excellently to turn Gerard Piqué and force a smart save out of Marc-André ter Stegen, while John Stones should have leveled things up with a free header from David Silva’s free-kick on the stroke of half time. Therein lies a major difference between the two clubs at present; Barcelona almost always punish mistakes, while City do not.
Additionally, Barcelona seem to actually have a good goalkeeper. Guardiola admitted in Tuesday’s press conference that he had contacted ter Stegen about a potential move to the Etihad Stadium this summer, a call that ushered Enrique into naming the German his first choice stopper for the 2016/2017 campaign. Guardiola’s second choice was 33-year-old Claudio Bravo, and the travesty that unfolded minutes into the second half suggests City have drawn the short straw. Here, ter Stegen proved that for all the ability he has with his feet, he can also used his hands rather well, too. As for Bravo, who sprinted out of his penalty area to nudge a misplaced pass into the feet of Suárez and then comically palm the Uruguayan’s goal-bound lob away while still out of his area, the gaffes keep piling up. A red card on his return to the Camp Nou is not the homecoming Bravo would have envisaged, and although he may well come good for City, I’m far from convinced so far.
Enter Willy Caballero. Exit Pablo Zabaleta, who probably knew things were about to get a little Messi. In truth, the full-back seemed to pick up a knee injury amid the confusion and was replaced by Gaël Clichy who told me on Monday that the team had been working on a back three in training for quite some time. With Zabaleta and Sagna now both expected to be sidelined, it’s a system Guardiola could put in place once again Sunday when Southampton come to town.
“After the red card, it was over,” admitted the boss. And then commenced the self-implosion. De Bruyne gave the ball away in the middle of the field and Messi made it two from the edge of the area. Gündoğan, aiming for Otamendi, slipped in Suárez who neatly provided Messi’s third. Substitute Jérémy Mathieu tried to make things a little more even again when he was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 73rd minute, but even despite Raheem Sterling’s best efforts, City were done.
The hosts looked set to make it four when Aleksandar Kolarov took the floor like a 6-year-old child at a school disco and brought down Messi, but Caballero, the penalty king, denied Neymar. The Brazilian did add his name to the scoresheet moments later, though, when he took on City’s entire defence and slotted into the bottom corner. Embarrassment complete.
Don’t let them tell you any different, City were not undeserving of this schooling. The system, in general, worked, but too many individuals lost their concentration in a game where it should have been at its sharpest. I’ll accept that Barcelona are the best team in the world, but this was a lesson in how to take chances and keep your head rather than in how to play football. Guardiola and his team have plenty to work on, the first being morale with the side now winless in four.