When the draw for the Champions League last-16 was made back in December, I spoke at length about Manchester City v Barcelona. It’s easy to understand why it was the hot topic of the draw – it’s such an appealing match-up. Fresh, hard to predict and full of star power.
Two months on, the first leg is finally upon us. City welcome Barca to the Etihad on Tuesday evening. And little has changed in that it remains the tie of the round and that it should provide all of the aforementioned aspects in droves.
There have been some subtle tweaks to the dynamic of the contest over the last 60 days, however. And for me, they make the match even more mouthwatering.
While of course the two sides play two different brands of football overall – Barcelona’s world-renowned tiki-taka is patient, intricate and suffocates the opposition while City prefer quicker, more direct assaults before protecting their leads with robust defending – it turns out they have quite a lot in common.
Firstly, whether trying to defend with bluster or by playing their way out from the back, both sides are nowhere near as assured at the back as they are when their world-class strike forces are bearing down on goal.
Granted, one has Vincent Kompany and the other has Gerard Pique, and in those two they have a bona fide world-class centre-back apiece, but both teams have been sussed out at the back in recent months by more than one mid-table or worse side.
Even Pique and Kompany themselves have been guilty of the odd howler this winter, though admittedly not so many as to raise alarm bells.
The two sides also of course find themselves thrust in a very competitive three-horse title race in their respective domestic division. Not only that, but with Chelsea and Arsenal being drawn into a war of words via their managers and the Madrid powerhouses taking their hostility to new levels thanks to the Spanish Cup draw, City and Barca are gradually slotting into a ‘wild card’ slot out of each trio – something that Tata Martino and Manuel Pellegrini will be more than happy with.
Finally, City and Barcelona come into the last-16 tie having overcome what appeared to be a major dent in their own confidence.
For the Citizens, the home defeat to Chelsea pierced an almighty hole in their presumed invincibility at the Etihad. They were out-done both in work rate and in tactics and that would have encouraged onlooking Barca eyes, but the FA Cup victory over Jose Mourinho’s boys was a fantastic reaction to that and restores their self-belief before such a big test.
Barcelona, meanwhile, were concerned about Lionel Messi’s form and fitness heading into the return of European action but his last couple of games will quiet any such worries.
For the neutral, that’s great. The prospect of these two sides coming into such a fresh tie at the top of their game is what the Champions League is all about.
One other thing they have in common is ex-Barcelona and current City midfielder Yaya Toure – and I feel he could be the difference over the two legs.
At his best, Yaya Toure is the complete player and if not for the emergence of Sergio Busquets and Messi’s goals often taking the pressure off the rest of the side, I believe Barcelona would be missing him a whole lot more than they are right now.
The one thing I say against Toure as a world-class talent is that sometimes he struggles to motivate himself for games. I cannot for the life of me see that being the case when he lines up against his old employers.
So while we marvel at Messi, Negredo, Silva, Iniesta and company, keep an eye out for Toure and especially those deadly free-kicks of his.