First there were back-to-back defeats against Ajax in the Champions League and Athletic Bilbao in La Liga. Then came disappointing draws – a dour top of the table game against Atletico Madrid and a stalemate at Levante. Finally, a home defeat to Valencia saw Barcelona displaced from the top of La Liga for the first time in 59 weeks.
There were rumblings of fear and discontent with a Champions League last 16 tie against free-scoring City approaching. Lionel Messi’s injury-disrupted season had rubbed off on the rest of the team, who were lacking a spark. Even when the maestro returned, he struggled for form. Barca got past Real Sociedad to reach the final of the Copa del Rey, but their victory owed more to their opponents’ ineptitude than their own superiority.
Then, just when against their own high standards La Blaugrana were in danger of looking ordinary, two Primera performances seemed to lift the spirits of fans and players alike and the faint origins of a smile began to crack the furrowed visage of Tata Martino. In a monsoon at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, Barca recovered from an early Sevilla goal to emerge 4-1 winners, a brace from Messi among their haul.
Last weekend, with Andres Iniesta – mysteriously relegated to the bench by Martino in recent weeks – restored to the starting line-up and the Barca machine purring again like a well-tuned engine, Rayo Vallecano were dispatched 6-0 at Camp Nou. Messi again scored twice to surpass Telmo Zarra’s record tally for a single Spanish club and become La Liga’s third highest all-time goalscorer. Even allowing for the paucity of the opposition, Barcelona were back.
By the eve of last night’s first-leg at the Etihad Stadium, the hyperbole was in full flow ahead of a game with more than a tinge of Spanish legacy surrounding the hosts. Former Malaga Coach Manuel Pellegrini was widely quoted as ranking his side as Manchester’s No. 1. Naturally, Jose Mourinho was also on hand to supply a provocative quote, though his assertion that this was “the worst Barcelona of many, many years” said more about the Portuguese than it did about Martino’s side.
When it came to the game itself, City’s attack was spearheaded by lone front-man Alvaro Negredo with David Silva in support and Negredo’s erstwhile Sevilla teammate Jesus Navas out wide. A cagey affair saw Pellegrini’s more cautious approach stifle Barca, whose chances were limited in a goalless first half, but that all changed when ex-Malaga centre-back Martin Demichelis upended Messi and saw red. The Argentine converted the spot-kick and from then on there was only one team in it, Dani Alves adding a late second after a one-two with Neymar.
The general consensus before the game was that, if City were to have any chance of progressing, they would need to win at the Etihad since, with the exception of the Valencia blip, Barca remain nigh on invincible at Camp Nou. At the same time, with City having destroyed so many opponents at home this season, and with Negredo’s potential to threaten and exploit the aerial vulnerabilities of Victor Valdes and the Barca defence, many felt Pellegrini’s men had the capacity to contain the Catalans.
Post-match discussion in the English media inevitably focused on Demichelis’ tackle on his compatriot, with the 33-year-old Argentine defender the primary scapegoat and Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson a close second for awarding a penalty in the first place. The bigger picture, however, is that Martino masterminded an impressive win for Barcelona. With Messi back and Iniesta pulling the strings again with Xavi Hernandez, the Coach is restoring the foundations of a great Barca team. Don’t write them off as Champions League winners.