To all those who have been questioning Pep Guardiola over the last couple of weeks, have a taste of that finely seasoned medicine. Manchester City finally produced ‘the’ big Champions League win that has been expected of them since they debuted in the competition in 2011. Barca were on toast for the majority of the game and with better finishing and better refereeing, the margin of victory could have been even larger. Pep Guardiola called this game a ‘cup final’ in his pre-match press conference, and if this is how City treat cup finals, we could be in for a trophy filled three years with Pep at the helm.
Whilst Pep Guardiola was in the process of preparing a tactical masterclass against the notoriously rigid Luis Enrique, one can only imagine how Mourinho was coping as he sat in his Travelodge on his lonesome crying into the latest edition of Four Four Two. One also has to ponder what kind of conspiracy theories @UnitedStandMUFC and Stephen Howson will come up with after City’s latest resounding victory under the stewardship of the best manager of this generation.
Other results went City’s way, which means City are almost certainties to go through to the next round and we even have a small chance of winning the group, although it would require a slip-up from Barca against one of the poor sides in this group. This seems unlikely, but Barca looked mortal today and counter-attack specialists Gladbach might fancy their chances to scrape a win.
City’s team only had one real surprise, with David Silva playing wide at the expense of Nolito, who was poor in the first meeting between these two sides. What made it such a surprise is that Nolito’s tactical discipline and intelligent movement can often be useful in games like this. In a game against Barcelona, the formation doesn’t really matter as most of the work is done off the ball, but for the sake of the article, City lined up in a 4-1-4-1 that often switched to a 4-2-3-1 when we countered as Gundogan was notably deeper than De Bruyne.
When City fans saw the team sheet, they probably gasped at the thought of an aging Pablo Zabaleta and a… funny Aleksandar Kolarov against the best front three in football history, but for the most part the full backs did their jobs, notably Zabaleta who looked aggressive and on form. This was often noticeable because Barca have appeared to be allergic to playing in the middle of the pitch this year, most of their passing play has come on the flanks which is bizarre.
The game started off with a ‘here we go again’ type moment, as the Hungarian referee somehow missed a blatant penalty for City despite being in the best position possible. Something needs to be done about these referees, they are unaccountable and it must be the only job in the world where you can continually make mistakes and not face any consequences of any sort. I already have qualms about the standard of some of the referees from these obscure countries, and tonight did nothing to change my mind.
Barca’s goal was otherworldly, the best counter attack we are likely to see at the Etihad this year. Two passes opened up a relatively well structured City defence and Lionel Messi did what he does best… score against Manchester City. It was highly unlucky on the part of City, it was just one of those goals that you’ll look back and realise you were just done from the beginning.
Pressing was of major importance in this game and it was honestly refreshing to see a City team so committed to winning the ball back. Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini would often invite pressure and make it easy for teams like Barcelona (and even Ajax) to come at us. City clearly targeted Barcelona’s full backs as Lucas Digne and Sergi looked vulnerable throughout against the press and the resulting counter attack. Sergi played it to Aguero who slipped in Sterling who found Gundogan who completed the perfectly symmetrical move. City have pressed this year, but this was the first time we saw a goal come from winning the ball near the opponents’ box.
City’s counterattacking was ridiculously good in this game, it seemed highly structured and Barcelona had no answer. We reminded the rest of Europe that it is near impossible to stop De Bruyne, Silva, Gundogan and Aguero between the lines, especially when you have Raheem Sterling stretching you out with his directness and his pace. Guardiola’s tactics are essentially forcing managers to choose their method of execution.
The second goal just seemed to be a piece of magic from Kevin De Bruyne, but the hard work and the smoothness of the build up to the free kick cannot be underestimated. David Silva was silky throughout and his quick feet forced Sergio Busquets into a rare piece of madness, as he just tripped Aguero. De Bruyne scored a free kick similar to this against Hull last year in the League Cup, he seems to like that style of free kick because the ball often moves in the air which can cause keepers problems. Ter Stegen was poor for the free kick, but frankly, we couldn’t care less.
The last goal was probably the best, purely because it involved two things we never seem to get in big games. The first of these was actual production from Jesus Navas, who made an amazing run off the shoulder of the dismal Lucas Digne and put an inviting ball into the six yard box. The second of these things was luck, we have simply been unlucky in Europe for a good number of years and to see the ball bounce off Aguero into the path of Man of the Match Gundogan was simply beautiful to see. It does seem like the tide has changed in Europe for City.
The press have been bugging me in recent weeks with their obnoxious hubris and their insistence that teams like West Brom are tougher than anything the multi-trophy winning Pep Guardiola has ever had to face. This victory was a massive middle finger to the ridiculously nationalist Brexit folk who seem to think that Pep’s trophies are meaningless because he hasn’t scabbed a Tuesday night away win at Shrewsbury. I hope Pep continues to make these high-horse fools look stupid.
Look out, Europe, City have arrived.