Manchester City gain valuable European experience despite falling short: Champions League Diary 13.03.14
Manchester City’s first venture into the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League came to an end in Barcelona last night with the Blues going down 2-1 to the Catalan giants in a 4-1 aggregate defeat. Manchester City were without the touchline presence of manager Manuel Pellegrini who was suspended courtesy of his comments regarding referee Jonas Eriksson just after the first leg where the Chilean coach called into question the Swedish official’s impartiality after he felt there was a string of wrong decisions which went against his team.
With the much maligned Martin Demichelis suspended as a result of his red-card in the first meeting between the two sides, Joleon Lescott was brought into the starting eleven to partner Vincent Kompany whilst James Milner was positioned on the left hand side of midfield to track the forward runs of Dani Alves just as Kolarov had done three weeks’ previously. The first half was a fairly even affair with perhaps Barcelona having the better of the opening exchanges with there being shouts for a Barcelona penalty turned down when Joleon Lescott was far too late to a challenge on Lionel Messi however referee Stephane Lannoy rather inexplicably waved play on.
Whilst Barcelona looked much more comfortable on the ball than their English counterparts in the first half, Manchester City were still more than in the game, Yaya Toure was a real threat in the centre of midfield with the Ivorian looking to push back the duo of Xavi and Fabregas through his marauding forward runs and as the half wore on it became more apparent that there was a sense of panic within the Barcelona backline whenever Toure set off on a forward drive such was the rather uncharacteristic tendency to try and bring Toure down once he got past one player to limit any damage he could possibly cause.
The inclusion of James Milner was a clever one, whenever Toure ran forward Milner would drift into a central position and provide light cover for the now exposed Manchester City midfield and this was possibly something which Pellegrini could have done with in the first leg.
Prior to kick-off Sergio Aguero had been heralded as the great hope for Manchester City to turn the tie around however the Argentine was very much on the periphery of the match with statistics showing the former Atletico Madrid forward had only six touches of the ball throughout his entire evening’s work. Aguero was withdrawn at half-time with a hamstring injury and looking back his first-half display was very similar to Mesut Ozil’s against Bayern the previous evening with the German international too suffering a hamstring complaint.
Manchester City started the second forty five minutes much the better team with captain Vincent Kompany leading from the back. The Belgian’s reading of the game was perfectly displayed last night however Barcelona’s lack of running options in behind allowed the City back four to step out and try and intercept a pass before it had reached its destination as there was no danger of a Pedro or an Alexis Sanchez running in behind and having a one on one with Joe Hart.
Barcelona looked to be on the ropes for the first ten minutes of the second-half with substitute Edin Dzeko looking to be a catalyst for a highly unlikely comeback. There is a feeling amongst Manchester City supporters that you can usually tell whether or not the Bosnian forward is in the mood based on his first few involvements in a match. Going by that charter you could see Dzeko was set to impress and his first touch was a shot which tested Victor Valdes.
In the ten minute period that followed Manchester City may well look back and reflect that they may well have not been adventurous enough to really make the most of their dominance. James Milner, whilst having a good evening doing the task he was entrusted with before kick-off, is not a real creative force. Whenever the ball went to the left hand side for a Manchester City attack it was slowed down by Milner and allowed the Barcelona back four to get back into some form of shape. Had Jesus Navas been introduced on the left hand side at half-time or even if Samir Nasri had just swapped sides there was a real chance for City to turn the screw.
As it happened Barcelona came out of a difficult period unscathed after Edin Dzeko forced a fine save out of Valdes whilst Pablo Zabaleta went close with a half volley from inside the penalty area. City’s valiant defensive efforts were in vain as Lionel Messi put the hosts in front with little over twenty minutes to go following a calamitous first touch from a not fully sharp Lescott allowed the Argentine in behind with only Joe Hart to beat.
City with now an even bigger task continued to fight on but it appeared too little too late and Stephane Lannoy’s decision not to award the Sky Blues a penalty when Gerard Pique clumsily brought Edin Dzeko down from behind only worsened the French referee’s shocking evening. The following complaints from Fernandinho and Pablo Zabaleta earned the Argentinean full-back a second yellow card and he will be out of City’s first Champions League fixture of next season.
Manchester City did pull a goal back in injury time through Vincent Kompany following a poorly defended corner from a Barcelona perspective however with only a surprisingly short two minutes of added time there was no hope for the visitors to mount a historic comeback.
Bayer Leverkusen travelled to Paris already knowing they were all but out of the competition however Sami Hyypia’s team began the match with a sense of freedom and took the lead early on from a smart Sidney Sam header at the back post. If there was even the slightest hint of belief from the German side it was quashed not long after when Marquinhos levelled the match for the Parisians with a powerful header from a corner.
Leverkusen then missed a penalty through captain Simon Rolfes and this killed any momentum Leverkusen had and the game lessened as a contest, it became at times like a practice match and PSG sealed their passage through to the quarter-final stage for the second season running when Ezequiel Lavezzi fired the hosts in front with a powerful shot from the edge of the area which beat Bernd Leno at his near post.
As many will tell you the Champions League is very much a steep learning experience. Manchester City have now had three seasons in the competition and this year was a real sign of improvement. The experience gained from the two ties against one of Europe’s elite in FC Barcelona will only serve as positives for the majority of the squad. At no point over the two matches when it was eleven vs eleven did City look completely out of their depth and with a central defender added in the summer to partner Vincent Kompany there is a very real chance City could improve on their performance in this year’s Champions League next season.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4