Date: 19th February 2014 at 1:23am
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Once again the Manchester rain welcomed our esteemed visitors from the aristocratic football kingdom of Catalonia. A team resplendent in its construction bearing an array of world class stars brought its proposition to the Etihad for what would probably be its sternest examination of the season so far.

Despite sitting atop its own domestic league, facing the ever improving Manchester City, Barcelona knew that the relatively new kids on the Champions League block would not lie down and roll over like just about every other opponent in the BBVA Primera Liga. They came with their expected game plan and found that Manuel Pellegrini’s men had the measure of them for much of this encounter.

Fielding their best available eleven, they came, they played and they just about conquered a Manchester City side which stood toe to toe with them in the centre of the ring, but not without an element of controversy.

Both teams set off pressing as high up the field as they could, keen not to let their opponents play on the lack of consistency offered by the respective back fours. For some reason, despite Lescott’s excellent turn-back-the-clock performance last Saturday, he was relegated to the bench in favour of Demichelis who for me was always going to be a risk today in terms of his lack of pace against an attack that not only has pace in abundance but also contains one of the world’s most gifted footballers, one Lionel Messi.

Pellegrini also positioned Kolarov ahead of Clichy on the left to counteract the often free running Dani Alves, a ploy that worked until other factors, especially the sending-off of Demichelis and the subsequent sacrifice of Kolarov for Lescott, took their toll. Kolarov’s inclusion meant no place in the starting line-up for neither the suspended Milner nor Nasri and Jovetic was unlucky too to be making way for “the system”. But it was a system that was working. In the first half despite suffering periods without the ball, City dug in deep as Xavi gave a superb display of penetrative midfield football. But much of his work came to nothing as Fernandinho and Kompany closed off the doors that Xavi generally opens with the precision of a Swiss locksmith.

Yaya Toure was City’s version and he pressed his team forward bringing Silva and Navas into play as often as possible, but just as often the final ball into Negredo was predictable with Busquets reading the play and stopping it by hook or by crook. Generally the latter.

It was astonishing how frequently he and Mascherano twisted the laws of the beautiful game and were not found guilty by the Swedish referee. Yet the first time that a City player, the inevitable Kolarov weighed in with something heavy, Mr Erikssen went immediately to his pocket and produced a yellow card. Negredo soon followed for practically nothing.

Both teams effectively cancelled each other out in the first half, leaving the field with honours even and nothing on the scoreboard. This gave the Blues fans a lift because against a less resilient opposition, Barcelona would have had the game in the bag by half time, but City had them rattled. They were not getting their customary own and they did not like it. Even the majestic Messi was hitting the grass after gossamer-thin contact in his bid to keep his team on the ball and time and again Erikssen bought into it. This kept undue pressure on City, but Kompany was king with a masterful performance of central defending, ensuring that Hart, guarding the pipes tonight had almost nothing to do. Xavi and Iniesta tried to keep their foot on the gas, but when you have two sides with time targets for ball-recovery when they lose it, this was certainly a hard fought match for both teams.

As the second half began, City set about it with a purpose and once again Barca were stunned and once again they didn’t like it. Fernandinho and Yaya began to dictate in midfield as they got to grips with Xavi and Iniesta, leaving Busquets as the main thread of resistence. Then they got not a slice but a dollop of luck from the referee. Busquets weighed in Navas in a way that would have earned a City player a yellow card. Erikssen said “No” and allowed play to continue. The ball found its way to Messi close to the edge of the box with Demichelis in close attendance. Demichelis’ poor attempt at a tackle resulted in a penalty and him getting a red card. Messi stepped up, waited for Hart to signpost which way he would dive and then coolly slotted the ball a foot the other way.

I can never understand why a defender takes the risk of a red card in situations like this. With Messi having shaken him off and bearing down on goal, you would expect him to score. If he does you still have eleven men on the field. You foul him, you’re gone and he scores anyway. The early photographs in the Spanish Sports daily, Marca, which generally favours Real Madrid, clearly showed that the initial contact was outside the penalty area and took delight in telling the world how lucky Barcelona were to get the award.

Down to ten men and losing 0-1 with thirty five minutes still to play, virtually every City fan in the Etihad would have taken that result as to reverse it at the Camp Nou would have given the Blues a chance, especially as Aguero might well have returned from injury by then. But Pellegrini couldn’t run with only three defenders against a team that at last was starting to find space and threatening to punish his side, so Kolarov had to be hooked in favour of Lescott to give the defence a more solid look. But his removal opened the door for the hitherto unheralded Dani Alves to get a free run at Clichy, not the best defender in the world.

Things now started to happen down the Barcelona right with Alves having the space of a free range chicken and starting to fire crosses high and low into the box, as well as having the odd strike on goal. But City held tight, keeping tabs on Messi and even Neymar when he was introduced until the game had just about ended when a lapse in concentration by a tiring Blues outfit allowed Dani Alves one last chance and he took it, prodding the ball between Hart’s legs to give Barcelona what I would suspect to be an unassailable 2-0 lead to take home for the second leg. Now City need to win at least 3-1 to get through to the last eight.

There were only seven chances in the whole match with Barca leading those four to three. Negredo almost got through twice but was unfortunate. Neither Silva nor Navas nor Toure nor Nasri could make anything count, so with Barca in the lead on the scoreboard it was never going to fall into City’s favour.

Yes, the Pedmachine is disappointed that City lost 2-0, but I am proud of the way the team fought for each other. Football can be a cruel game and tonight City did not deserve to lose 2-0. They did not deserve to lose at all. Regular readers of the Ped Report know that I pull no punches in criticising City when it is due, but tonight I cannot say that. They put in a well-worked-out performance which was doing the job until the non-intervention of a poor referee gave Barcelona the key to the quarter-finals. To not have collared Busquets for the foul on Navas would have got a Premier League referee a weekend in the Championship or League One. That Erikssen will get away with his performance tonight is unforgiveable. That Busquets managed to escape the night without admonishment was simply incredible. That this combination resulted in a red card for Demichelis and a penalty conversion for Messi was bang out of order. Never again will I call a Premier League referee and I have today signed up as an official member of the Mark Clattenburg fan club. (Howard Webb was pushing it!).

The Redtop Quadruple now looks to have gone and City can get back to searching for domestic rather than international honours this season. But they can take with them the pride of Manchester for a hard fought performance against one of the world’s best and greatest teams. Don’t forget it is the same Redtops who carefully edited what Pellegrini had to say at the pre-match press conference, where he alluded to the fact that City are bigger than United (this season). The key words were carefully omitted to create the kind of headline that Pellegrini does not seek and that would have horrified him.

That said, whereas I believe he got his tactics right tonight, I do not believe that fielding Demichelis helped his case. You can get away for so long by reading the game and positioning yourself accordingly but as the famous Stretford Rio Ferdinand has been finding out for a few seasons now, in the end the pace of the game finds you out and that is precisely what happened to Demichelis tonight. For me Kompany and Lescott would have been the correct combination as this would have given the back line a more solid feel.

I would take my case to the Camp Nou in three weeks time and simply go for it. Other teams have done it in the Champions League and made it. For City it will be a difficult task but Pellegrini should have one trophy in the Etihad bag by then and hopefully his team will be buzzing from that. It is a fixture that heralds the start of four aways in five in March which includes visits to the Theatre of Shattered Dreams in Stretford as well as the Ashburton Grove Bottling Factory in North London. It could define the destination of the Champions League and Barclays Premier League trophies this season.

all times East Manchester GMT

Sa 22Feb 15h00 Stoke City, The Etihad, PL
Su 02Mar 14h00 Sunderland, Wembley, LCF
Sa 08/Su 09Mar Wigan Athletic, The Etihad, FACQF
We 12Mar 19h45 Barcelona, Nou Camp, CLR16
Sa 15Mar 12h45 Hull, KC Stadium PL
Sa 22Mar 15h00, Fulham, The Etihad, PL
Tu 25Mar 19h45 The Stretfords, the swamp, PL
Sa 29Mar 17h30, Arsenal, The Emirates, PL


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