There was a touch of Groundhog Day about a night that saw Manchester City’s latest Champions League tilt grounded. Probably for good this season.
City’s Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini can barely stomach Jose Mourinho's antics yet he does a remarkably believable impersonation of the Chelsea manager in full man-child mode. Only moments after his side lost 2-0 to Barcelona in the first leg of this much-vaunted get-together in the last 16, Pellegrini mimicked classic Mourinho.
If in doubt, blame a match official. Mourinho had berated referee Phil Dowd after his side slumped 2-0 at City in the FA Cup last 16 on Saturday. Pellegrini curiously did likewise when discussing Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson’s contribution to City's downfall 72 hours later.
"I think in the whole match, we didn't have a referee with impartiality to both teams,” said Pellegrini.
Pellegrini was vexed about the moment that saw this game lurch violently towards Barcelona when Martín Demichelis sent Lionel Messi crashing to the ground with a late challenge.
Replays showed initial contact with Messi may have been made slightly outside of the City area eight minutes after half-time, but there was no doubt that Demichelis had to go.
Manchester City's Martin Demichelis is sent off against Barcelona.
There was also a key tackle by Sergio Busquets on Jesus Navas prior to Barca’s opening goal, but footage suggests there was no foul play by the visiting midfielder. Andres Iniesta wasted no time to slip in Messi with a delightful ball that prompted the foul by Demichelis.
With City reduced to 10 men, Messi tucked the penalty down the middle as Joe Hart headed off to his left. City called on every reserve of energy, but were unfastened for a second time in the closing seconds when substitute Neymar played in Dani Alves to tuck the ball through Hart’s legs. It was a clubbing blow to City before the second leg at the Camp Nou on March 12.
Press conferences continue to do managers more harm than good. For his own sake, it would have been wise for Pellegrini to call it a night before he was allowed to warm to the theme of a biased referee. UEFA will surely instigate action against him for his unfounded outburst against a referee poised to officiate at this summer's World Cup finals.
"He (Eriksson) decided the game,” commented Pellegrini in a churlish and bitter rant. “It was a foul by (Sergio) Busquets on Navas. The referee was three metres away and he didn't blow the whistle and after that the foul from Demichelis is outside the box, it's not a penalty.
"Important mistakes against a great team like Barcelona make it difficult to win."
If we want to discuss significant mistakes, we can go back to City’s 3-2 win over Bayern Munich on December 10 when Pellegrini began to shape City's destination in this year's Champions League.
Manchester City's Vincent Kompany (L) reacts to the referee after Martin Demichelis was sent off.
A 4-2 success at the Allianz Arena would have not only cancelled out City's chastening 3-1 defeat to the Champions League holders at the Etihad Stadium in October, it would also have sent the visiting side through as Group D winners having scored four away goals to Bayern’s three.
When James Milner found the rigging to give City a 3-2 lead, there were 28 minutes plus stoppage time for them to find a fourth goal.
Pellegrini opted against introducing Sergio Aguero, apparently blissfully unaware that only one goal was needed to see them usurp Bayern.
If City had won the group, they could have been facing Bayer Leverkusen in Germany on Tuesday night where another Swede in the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice for Paris Saint-Germain in a 4-0 shredding of the German side.
Instead they landed Barcelona, a team you would rather avoid at the best of times. Pellegrini felt that Eriksson was sympathetic to Barcelona having made mistakes against Milan last season.
The errors he alluded to actually came during a 0-0 draw at the San Siro in a quarter-final two years ago. Again, this hints at a lack of research.
"There is more important football in Europe than Sweden,” he said.
“A big game with two important teams, that kind of game needs a referee with more experience. This referee whistled the Barcelona-Milan game in the group and he made an important error against Barcelona. Today he remedied it.
"To have the same the referee here, I repeat, is a mistake."
It was a bizarre comment to make because it could be argued that Pellegrini blew it with his team selection.
Kompany and Joleon Lescott had produced a stout performance against Chelsea, displaying glimpses of the form that helped City win the Premier League in 2012. But Lescott made way for Demichelis.
There was almost a sense of foreboding when the sturdy David Nalbandian-type figure was cruelly exposed for pace and lack of composure. He should have opted to allow Messi proceed to have a shot rather than slide into an ill-advised tackle from behind.
It is on such small decisions that matches change course. Demichelis's positioning was wrong, but his late slide tackle compounded the earlier mistake by damaging City as much as Messi’s goal.
Barcelona players celebrate Lionel Messi's penalty against Manchester City.
Let us not forget, Barca also had a legitimate goal ruled offside when Cesc Fabregas was onside from a Xavi pass. He set up Gerard Pique to score. It should have secured them a 2-0 lead six minutes before Alves struck.
Gerardo Martino's Barcelona were efficient without excelling, but there was a street-wise element to their play that continues to elude City at this level.
City captain Vincent Kompany echoed the childish theme of his manager by complaining about the referee.
"There were a lot of soft fouls today, in the Premier League there would have never any of those fouls given. Normal challenges when you take the ball and it's a foul.”
There is a naivety to such words because the European game has always differed from domestic fare. Players have to adjust accordingly, but surely that should not have been an issue because City’s outfield players did not contain an Englishman.
It is difficult to feel too much sympathy for a club that has spent over £1 billion in the pursuit of happiness. They remain some way off their ultimate vision.
Barcelona made 753 passes to City’s 325. It was not a referee that settled this match. Just the players. Put bluntly, Barca have better ones.
As we were reminded, money never brought with it a guarantee of happiness.
Pellegrini said before this tie that City are the top club in Manchester. Such talk is as meaningful as blaming a smorgasbord of shortcomings on a Swedish referee.
Meanwhile, don't expect to see Manuel in his technical area at the Camp Nou.
- Sports & Recreation
- Manuel Pellegrini
- Manchester City
- Martín Demichelis
- Lionel Messi
- Jose Mourinho