There are many similarities between the sides this season. Both have new and unproven managers, Pellegrini at City and Martino at Barca. Both like to attack, but can be vulnerable at the back. Both find themselves in a tight tussle at the top of their leagues. So who will win?
If it was a matter of pedigree there would be no competition, of course. Barcelona have won the trophy (and its earlier equivalent) four times, Manchester City previously struggled to get out of the knockout stages. But pedigree counts for little in the brave new world of European football. The huge financial backing of City gives them a real prospect of Champion’s League success, whereas previous greats like Ajax are unlikely to have an opportunity to win it again.
Let us look at recent form. Tata Martino’s side had been struggling to kill off teams, as witnessed by their goalless draw against Atletico. The are also prone to defensive lapses. Last weekend’s 6-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano however, saw them back to their best.
Manchester City had been on an incredible run, but the wheels fell off against Chelsea and then Norwich City. Their players suddenly looked tired, the freescoring goal machine had ground to a halt. They restored some pride with revenge over Chelsea in the FA Cup, but they were still not back to their best.
Talking of ‘best’, how about Lionel Messi? Bad news, City fans. He is back to his very best. After taking a while to return from his thigh injury, he is now as quick and deadly as ever. His confidence is sky high, his brace on Saturday moved him to 4th in the all time La Liga scoring charts.
His fellow Argentine, Sergio Aguero, on the other hand, will miss the game. It’s a huge blow for city. Negredo too is struggling for fitness. Can Dzeko and Jovetic ever be a match for Messi and Alexis Sanchez? Neymar too, should be ready to start. The only headache that Tata Martino has is deciding which of his star attackers to leave out.
Then there is central midfield. Pellegrini has been insisting on a bizarre experiment of playing sub standard defender Di Michelis as a very sub standard midfielder. To do so against Barcelona would be suicidal. English fans who haven’t followed Europe’s greatest league for the last two seasons will be surprised by the strides that Cesc Fabregas has made. He really has become a natural successor to Xavi, and has the potential to tear City’s midfield to shreds.
Ex-Blaugranes player Yaya Toure will have to be at his best, but that means that he will have to be disciplined in defensive, at the cost of his attacking threat.
It’s a fascinating match up, and a high scoring game will surely follow. I predict a 2-2 draw at the Etihad, with Joe Hart having to be on top form to keep Messi out. The return leg should be less equal. A victory to Barcelona by two or three goals will see them keep the young guns at bay. For this year at least.