Barcelona reached the Champions League quarter-finals for the eighth straight season after they held onto a 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Wednesday.
Dani Alves, Jordi Alba, Jeremy Mathieu, Javier Mascherano and Andres Iniesta all missed last weekend’s 2-0 victory over Eibar in La Liga, but they were back in the Catalans’ line-up. Elsewhere, Luis Enrique gave a huge vote of confidence to usual European first choice Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who replaced Claudio Bravo in goal, despite the importance of their task.
In the other corner, City opted to switch from their much-maligned 4-4-2 formation to a 4-2-3-1, with James Milner, Samir Nasri and David Silva supporting Sergio Aguero as the three in behind.
Barca had two precious away goals to their name following their 2-1 first-leg win and similarly took a 2-0 lead into the same match last season, before eventually progressing to the quarter-finals 4-1 on aggregate.
From the first whistle, City were on the receiving end of a Barca enslaught, peppered by frequent moments of magic from Messi, who attracted three bookings and left both Milner and Fernandinho red-faced with his individual ability.
Their dominance was highlighted by two instances of hitting the post, first through Neymar, who kissed the upright early on after being released in the box by Messi, before Luis Suarez lifted a finish onto the frame of Joe Hart’s goal just before the break.
With City doing just about enough to weather the storm, they eventually buckled under Messi’s increasing influence. Dispossessing Bacary Sagna in his own box, Messi drove forward unopposed and played in Rakitic for a delicate lob over Hart at the far post.
The Catalans continued to assume control, well into the restart, but Jordi Alba’s correctly-disallowed goal, coupled with the goalkeeping exploits of Joe Hart to keep out Neymar on numerous occasions, meant the score remained on a knife edge.
They then looked to have thrown away all of their good work, like so many before them, when substitute Jesus Navas approached the byline but couldn’t pick out a teammate in the box with his cut-back, before a game of pinball ensued near Ter Stegen’s goal.
If that wasn’t enough of a warning sign, they were afforded a bombshell as Aguero fell over Gerard Pique’s trailing leg in the box for a City penalty. However, the German – who almost lost the ball in his own half moments earlier – guessed right to deny the striker.
The match ended with Hart continuing to perform heroics, but Alves picked up a late yellow card to rule him out of the first leg of Barca’s quarter-final tie, while Nasri was fortunate to avoid a red before his substitution at half-time for kicking out at Neymar.
Barcelona 1-0 Manchester City (3-1 agg.)
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Alves (Adriano 87), Pique, Mathieu, Alba; Rakitic (Rafinha 78), Mascherano, Iniesta; Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Manchester City: Hart; Sagna, Kompany, Demichelis, Kolarov; Fernandinho, Toure (Bony 72); Nasri (Navas 45); Silva, Milner (Lampard 87); Aguero
Referee: Rocchi [ITA]