On Wednesday evening, Manchester City travel to Barcelona to re-acquaint themselves with the team they’ve come unstuck against on four previous occasions in five years of Champions League participation.
But this time they’ve got Pep Guardiola at the helm and on his return to the club at which he twice lifted Europe’s most coveted trophy as a manager, there’s hope that things might just pan out a little differently.
Though it’s doubtful anyone involved with the club would ever dare admit it out loud, Guardiola’s overarching target during however long he ends up staying in Manchester is to deliver continental glory and, on paper at least, it’s far from an impossible dream.
City have qualified for the knockout phase of the competition in each of the last three seasons and last year they made it as far as the semi-final before they were seen off by eventual winners Real Madrid. On paper, transforming last year’s semi-finalists into this year’s champions doesn’t seem like such a massive ask.
But, as we all know only too well, the game isn’t played on paper and in reality, there still exists a sizeable gulf between the team City are and the European super power they aspire to be. They may have only been “one goal away from a place in the final” last season, but their meek surrender in the Bernabéu was typical of the way they’ve retreated into their shell whenever they’ve come up against one of Europe’s A-listers in the Champions League thus far.
Of course, they beat Bayern Munich – Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, no less – two years on the bounce in the Group Stage but on both occasions, the German giants had already sealed qualification to the next round and had little, if anything, left to play for.
The difficult truth is, City have yet to take on and beat a team like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona when it’s really mattered and Guardiola and his players must find a way to vault that psychological hurdle and win one of those battles before they can even begin to think about winning the war.
One of the many contributory factors to City fans’ collective disillusionment with the Champions League is the fact that year after year, we’ve been faced with the same old, seemingly indomitable foes. If we weren’t finding ourselves in an impossible-to-win ‘Group of Death’ alongside Bayern Munich we were drawing Barcelona and crashing out at the Round of 16 two years in succession.
Last season, City were able to top their group for the first time (despite being beaten twice by Juventus along the way) and were subsequently handed a much more manageable last 16 tie against Dynamo Kiev. They negotiated that one with consummate ease and when they overcame a star-studded Paris Saint-Germain over two legs in the quarter-final, few could be blamed for thinking the Blues had finally got the hang of this European football lark.
But the way things panned out against Real Madrid was proof, if ever it were needed, that to be the best you have to beat the best and Wednesday’s trip to Camp Nou will be the first big test of City’s credentials in this Champions League campaign. If they’re somehow able to come out of it with a positive result, we really can allow ourselves to think they’ve finally got the hang of this European football lark.
However, at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, it’s going to be far from easy. City only managed a couple of consolation goals in their four previous Champions League meetings with Barcelona and would have been on the wrong end of a humiliating scoreline were it not for a phenomenal performance from Joe Hart on their last visit to Camp Nou.
Blaugrana haven’t lost a Champions League group game since September 2014 (3-2 away at PSG) and haven’t been beaten at home in Europe since Tito Vilanova’s side were hammered 3-0 by that year’s champions Bayern Munich (7-0 on aggregate) in the 2013 semi-final. They’ve won their first two fixtures of this campaign and stuck seven past Celtic – against whom City struggled last time out – in their only home game so far.
They have, however, lost two of their opening eight La Liga fixtures this season and if you could handpick one man in Europe to mastermind an emulation of Deportivo Alavés shock 2-1 victory at Camp Nou in September, it would probably be Pep Guardiola.
A proud Catalan, Guardiola came through the youth system at Barça and won everything there is to win at the club, both as a player and later, as a manager. His two Champions League successes so far both came in Catalunya and his revolutionary approach to the game rejuvenated a club which, by their lofty standards, was floundering when he took over from Frank Rijkaard in 2008. Like his mentor Johan Cruyff, Guardiola’s name will forever be woven into the fabric of Futbol Club Barcelona and Luis Enrique’s current team still bears his mark.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) October 18, 2016
If Pep doesn’t know how to beat Barcelona then you have to wonder whether anyone does, but knowing how is only half the battle and if he has any chance of pulling off a result against his old club, he’s going to need his players to execute his game-plan to perfection.
In the past, inexperience at the elite level has been an easy and, in some cases, valid excuse for City’s failings in Europe. Their squad this year may only boast one Champions League winner (Claudio Bravo) and one finalist (İlkay Gündoğan) but it also contains six players who’ve been at the club since City made their Champions League bow in 2011 and plenty of others with bags of experience at the top level. If they don’t know what it’s all about by now, it’s unlikely they ever will.
Even the most delusional optimist couldn’t possibly be expecting City to lift the Champions League trophy in Cardiff in May and their chances of beating Barcelona in their own backyard are almost as slim, but if City can walk out onto that hallowed turf on Wednesday, look like they belong there and give the 24-time Spanish champions a game, it will represent a giant step in the right direction and something which can be built upon in the coming weeks and months.
On the day they posted a club record financial turnover for the 2015/16 season, chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak said 2016/17 is “the beginning of a critical new phase in the evolution of Manchester City.”
Genuinely competing with Barcelona rather than just looking like competition winners and vanquishing that Champions League inferiority complex once and for all on Wednesday night would be an excellent place to start.
Written by Dan Burke
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