It’s true what they say, you know – Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Historians actually estimate that it’s taken approximately 1,009,491 days to build Rome and compared to that, the six seasons it took Manchester City to finally make the great leap forward in the Champions League is a wait at the bus stop.
Nevertheless, it felt like a long time in the making and though their empire remains far from complete, City’s 3-1 victory over Barcelona on Tuesday night represents solid foundations upon which bigger and better things can henceforth be constructed.
Prior to the trip to Camp Nou a fortnight ago, I wrote that with five years of Champions League experience under their belts and Pep Guardiola now installed at the helm, it was high time City overcame the inferiority complex that has so often been their undoing in the pursuit of Europe’s biggest prize.
They undoubtedly demonstrated encouraging signs of progress that night yet they were still beaten 4-0 and psychologically, they still seemed as far away from being a force to be reckoned with on the continent as they’ve ever been.
Tuesday night’s ding dong under the Etihad Stadium floodlights was the sixth Champions League meeting between City and Barça and when Lionel Messi swept home the opening goal from the visitors’ first real attack in the 21st minute, it looked for all the world like it was going to go the same way as the five which had preceded it.
City had begun the game brightly and would have had the opportunity to take the lead from the penalty spot were it not for an awful decision from Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai. The luck the Blues have had in this fixture over the years is enough to make a good man turn bad and as they struggled to regain a foothold in the game in the aftermath of Messi’s goal, it seemed their luck was out again.
And then the wind changed direction.
First, Luis Suárez missed a gilt-edged chance in front of goal which, if taken, wouldn’t necessarily have put the game to bed but would have at least helped it into its pyjamas. The sheer terror of such a near miss seemed to rouse City from their slumber and before long they’d managed to claw themselves back into the game after a stray pass across the Barça box was seized upon by Sergio Agüero and duly converted by İlkay Gündoğan, via Raheem Sterling.
With the sell-out crowd roaring them on, City took the upper hand and could – nay – should have gone in ahead at half time. However, any fears that the interval would disrupt the Blues’ momentum were allayed when Kevin De Bruyne curled a super free kick into the top corner of Marc-André ter Stegen’s net mere minutes into the second half. We’d never even gone in front against Barcelona before and doing so felt extremely weird, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t even dare to dream the lead was going to last.
But last it did and though there was absolutely nothing flukey about the result, there’s no doubt that Lady Luck was smiling down from the third tier of the South Stand on this occasion. City were brilliant from 1-11, particularly in the second half where the intensity of their pressing and the breath-taking speed of their counter-attacks wiped the floor with the reigning champions of Spain, yet it might have all been for nothing had André Gomes’s effort been an inch lower with the score at 2-1. Instead, it hit the crossbar, and the rest is history.
A greater margin of victory would not have flattered City’s second half showing in the slightest and Pablo Zabaleta’s ecstasy at the full time whistle said it all. Just when we thought the aging Argentine had little left to offer at the top level, he goes and puts in a performance brimming with passion, courage and the sort of quality we haven’t seen since he was at the peak of his powers three seasons ago. City’s skipper for the night led by example and his teammates duly followed suit.
What with the 4-0 win at West Brom at the weekend and now this magnificent triumph, any creeping doubts regarding Pep Guardiola’s ability as a manager have been thoroughly extinguished, for the time being at least. The Catalan was in an understandably jubilant mood after masterminding his first victory over his old club and the team he described as “the best in the world”.
"We beat the best team in the world!" Pep seals a first historic @ManCity win over his former club.
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) 1 November 2016
Now, that particular accolade may well be up for debate but one thing’s for sure – we would not have been able to beat them were it not for Pep and you can bet there’ll be a few more scalps where that one came from before he eventually bids us adéu.
We always knew the Champions League would be a steep learning curve but we perhaps didn’t realise quite how steep it would be and it’s taken a lot of getting used to. City’s win over Barcelona doesn’t make them instant favourites to lift the trophy in May (even their passage to the last 16 is not yet a foregone conclusion) but it gives them an abundance of self-confidence and self-belief at this level and the next time they face a team like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, they’ll finally have some proper experience, some muscle memory, to draw upon.
They took their time getting here but make no mistake about it, Manchester City have finally turned a corner and arrived, to wild applause, on the European stage.
Oh what a night indeed.
Written by Dan Burke
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