Manchester City return to Champions League action on Wednesday in a highly anticipated clash between the club that made Pep Guardiola’s reputation and the one that hopes he can produce similar success for them.
After a fruitless slog against a tightly organised Everton team at the weekend, City will be eager to meet a side that offers them space to breathe. Given that we are talking about Barcelona in the Camp Nou, there are few other obvious elements of the upcoming match that they will be looking forward to.
With sections of the domestic press rubbing their hands together at City’s three-match winless run that now stretches through Celtic, Tottenham and Everton, the likelihood that they walk away from Catalunya with three points is slim. City fans will need to prepare, thus, for a rash of “four games winless” headlines on Thursday morning.
Despite this, Barcelona appear to be taking things seriously enough, naming a full strength squad for the match, with rumour that the locals are in a state of tense anticipation at City — and Guardiola’s — arrival.
The Champions League clash comes off the back of an Everton game that turned out to be a curious exercise in futility. With Ronald Koeman outguessing his counterpart and preparing his side for the Catalan coach’s formation, the Toffees were well organized and prepared and dug out a performance of great concentration and rigidity to survive with a point. In a match that was tactically versatile, Koeman may have surprised many with the defensiveness of his philosophy. As a fellow disciple of Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, many will have expected a more expansive Everton side, but opening up against Guardiola’s City these days invites a good pummeling. Even in their cautious mode, Everton were somewhat fortunate to see the draw out, with two penalties saved by the outstanding Maarten Stekelenburg and a number of other elastic stops from the Dutch goalkeeper.
City fans should not be deterred, however. Guardiola has imbued the side with a creative force, which many will succumb to this campaign. The draw at Celtic may have been ragged, but it showcased City fighting back from one goal down on three separate occasions at a venue that has seldom been breached by the away side, even in the Champions League.
Only at Tottenham, where City put in an unusually lumpen performance, did things go properly awry. Koeman attested to City’s current power when he avowed that this had been the “best team” he’d faced over the course of his near 20-year managerial career, quite a compliment from the ex-PSV, Ajax, Valencia, Benfica and Southampton boss.
City can also rejoice in the early return to fitness of Kevin de Bruyne, whose hamstring injury was expected to keep him out until midweek at least. With De Bruyne in the side, the movement and fluidity is notched up a level and the statistics tells us that the win rate is as well. City have an 18-9-5 record (wins, draws and defeats) in the games in which he has participated and a 3-1-6 record in those he has missed. In over a year with the team, the Belgian has made a colossal difference. His absence at White Hart Lane was arguably a factor — along with Tottenham’s excellent high-energy approach — that saw City so comprehensively overshadowed.
Summer signing Nolito will also be chomping at the bit to see some game time in Barcelona after being tutored by their coach Luis Henrique in his time at Celta Vigo. In Sid Lowe’s excellent Guardian piece on Monday, the Spaniard is quoted as saying, “He bet very, very heavily on me and supported me. He made me see football differently, convincing me I could really make it.” The evidence so far is that the 30-year-old is enjoying the best phase of his a nomadic career, which took him to Barcelona, Benfica, Granada and Celta before being offered the chance to play under Guardiola at City.
With David Silva also approaching the level of three years ago, City have few clear problems to solve, bar working out what the best defensive lineup is and improving their penalty-taking technique. Guardiola has hinted that he will not need any winter window signings to bolster an already well-stocked squad and that Sergio Aguero will be permitted to continue to take the penalties.
Having missed two in Romania against Steaua in the Champions League and one in midweek for Argentina against Paraguay, the stocky Argentinean again placed his kick too close to the goalkeeper’s left hand and saw his fourth penalty of the season fail to hit the back of the net. Two years ago, Aguero had his penalty in the Nou Camp saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. He will be hoping lightening doesn’t strike twice on Wednesday.