Same teams, same round, same venue, different year. This is the second time in two years F.C. Barcelona and Manchester City are meeting in the first round of Champions League at Etihad. Neither team needs any specific introduction. Without doubt, this is the most high profile Champions League clash so far this season.
Last season saw Barca edge out City 2-0 in what was a pretty evenly contested first leg. That match saw City regarding Barca with a little too much respect, which ultimately determined their downfall.
This time however, City will be more experienced and will be confident entering the match having thrashed Newcastle 5-0 and Stoke City 4-1 in the last two matches. Barca seemed to be in an immensely rich vein of form since their match against Real Socienad that they lost 1-0, having won 11 consecutive matches. But their 1-0 loss to struggling Malaga has against sown the seeds of doubt regarding their form. Luckily, both are attacking teams with prolific strikers and one can expect action at both ends of the pitch.
Luis Enrique has been pretty consistent in his team selection and formation in recent matches. Barca are almost certain to play their usual 4-3-3 with the impetus on the getting the ball forward to Messi, Neymar , Suarez quickly. However, it’s uncertain whether Mascherano will play and which position he will play in. He certainly has had a better season than Sergio Busquets, but Busquets’ intelligence might be critical against Silva’s movement. Mascherano can play centre back too but he certainly will not be able to match Wilfried Bony in strength or in the air. Iniesta has been out of form of late and Enrique might just play Xavi or Rafinhain his place. Ter Stegen has started all matches in the Champions League so far but Claudio Bravo is certainly the better option.
Man City has often played a 4-4-2 formation this season but in the Champions league they have been better off playing Aguero as the solo striker. There is some debate over whom amongst Demicheles and Mangala should start, but Demicheles’ improved form and experience might work in his favour. With Yaya Toure out due to suspension, Fernando and Fernandinho are likely to start unless Pelligrini springs a surprise by starting either of Lampard or the energetic Milner ahead of Fernando. Nasri has looked good this season and Pelligrini is unlikely to repeat last season’s mistake of starting Kolarov in his position. Navas has been an important outlet this season and his experience against Barca could see him get the nod ahead of Milner.
The key player for Barca will undoubtedly be Messi. He will look to play a hybrid position drifting between the right wing and a no. 10 position. Manchester City will have to be particularly wary of his ability to play lofted balls from the edge of the box to Neymar and Alba which has been a key aspect of his play this season. Zabaleta will need to be very quick on his feet to block any attacks resulting from this outball. Messi’s ability is unquestionable and if he is given enough space, he can cause damage in more ways than one.
Neymar has also played well in big games this season and his ability to draw fouls against may prove detrimental against the physical Manchester City defence and midfield.
Suarez will relish the chance to go against Kompany yet again and his energy will be the pivot around which Barca build their attack.
Manchester City’s best option would be to copy Malaga and deploy two banks of four while defending and close down Messi and Neymar relentlessly. Their energetic midfield of Fernando, Fernandinho and Navas/ Milner could prove critical in this aspect. Barca’s midfielders struggled against PSG’s energetic trio of Veratti, Motta and Matuidi in their first group stage clash this season and City can take a lot of heart from that. Rakitic will play a key role here being the only player can cover enough ground to match the City midfield.
Silva will be City’s key player in attack. He has been at his imperious best this season and Busquets/ Mascherano will have to be at their best to stop him. His ability to pick out Aguero with his incisive passing and his dribbling ability will cause Enriqe’s team plenty of problems.
The right wing has been a serious issue defensively for Baca this season with Dani alves’ form being patchy and Messi not being the greatest contributor defensively. Nasri would fancy his chances to wreck havoc down that side.
Alba however is having his best season in a Barca shirt so far and was a saving grace against Malaga too. His linking up with Neymar and Messi might just be the ploy that brings casues Man City the biggest problems.
Unlike before, when Navas used to pound in crosses for the strikers, he has relied more on cutbacks to Silva this season and how that works out will prove significant.
Pique and Mascherano aren’t the fastest, so Enrique might just be tempted to start Mathieu to negate Aguero’s pace and movement. Pelligrini will probably also bring on Bony in the second half to use as a bettering ram against Barca’s soft centre and how Barca manages to handle that will be interesting to see.
All in all, Barca will surely look to dominate the match and possession with their fluid passing style and rely on Messi moments of magic to get the goals while Manchester City will look to break up play and launch lightening quick counter attacks relying on the brilliance of Silva and Aguero.
A cracker of a match which certainly wont lack for action.