Barcelona, Manchester City looking to bounce back
Barcelona — Ahead of the Champions League last 16 first leg between Manchester City and Barcelona there was talk around both teams of potential quadruples — with their teams winning every trophy available this season. That was then.
Now Barca and City go into Wednesday’s return game at the Camp Nou reeling from surprise defeats, with under fire coaches looking to right campaigns which look in real danger of careering straight off track.
The Citizens had their shock on Sunday, being eliminated from the FA Cup by second-tier Wigan, after which manager Manuel Pellegrini was accused of having not taken the game seriously enough. Adding to the woes is the fact that while City have three games in hand, Chelsea have also motored clear atop the Premier League in recent weeks.
Meanwhile Satuday’s surprise 1-0 defeat at lowly Real Valladolid leaves the Catalans four points behind La Liga table toppers Real Madrid. That third defeat in six games brought a feeling apparently shared by both blaugrana players and pundits that coach Gerardo Martino is running out of ideas.
Martino strongly defended himself and his team at Tuesday’s pregame press conference.
"This team is alive, it has pride, courage, it knows how to play these games," Martino said. "I would not take the risk of discarding Barca. The days after a defeat can be hard. We have to think about what we did in the moments when the team played well. Not so long ago we played well in Manchester. I am sure that tomorrow the team will play well again."
The Argentine had a point as Dani Alves’ late strike in the first leg for 2-0 gave Barca real control of this tie. City really have no option but to forgo its defensive approach from the first leg and go on the attack. That is something its midfielder Samir Nasri reckons could be liberating.
"Anything is possible in football," Nasri said. "I saw Barca against Valladolid. It just shows they are human. We have nothing to lose. Just attack them from the start and try to score an early goal."
Barca midfielder Andres Iniesta shares that expectation of how the visitors will approach the game, although he feels that could play into his team’s hands.
"Manchester City will have to come out and go for it, Iniesta told FOX Soccer last week. "They need to score goals. We will try and take advantage of the spaces they leave, to resolve the tie."
Iniesta was absent last weekend through personal reasons, but has returned to training and should start in a Barca XI packed with midfielders – the approach which worked so well in Manchester. Another sure starter is Lionel Messi, who converted a penalty for Barca’s opener in that game, but was uncharacteristically sluggish against Valladolid. Neymar, playing at the moment as if weighed down by the issues around his transfer, could well be benched for the more reliable Alexis Sanchez.
City defender Martin Demichelis is suspended after his red card at the Etihad, so little-used England international Joleon Lescott is set for a rare start at the back, something his team’s fans might welcome given Demichelis’ recent (and well-publicized) blunders.
Sergio Aguero [five goals in 10 games against Barca for former club Atletico Madrid] has recovered from his recent hamstring issues and will probably be partnered in attack by Spain international Alvaro Negredo. Former Barca midfielder Yaya Toure is sure to be motivated on his first game back at the Camp Nou.
Another man who will not lack for motivation is Pellegrini, whose rant at referee Jonas Eriksson after the first leg brought a ban from UEFA. The usually phlegmatic coach has felt the pressure in recent weeks, and has called on his men to bounce back at the Camp Nou.
"We have a lot of things to fight for until the end of the season," Pellegrini said. "First we must try to win in Barcelona. We must react. We still have a possibility. Winning always gives you confidence. A game like this can bring a reaction from the team. It could be positive."
The Chilean coach knows if his team can start fast, and score early, blaugrana fans and players could begin to get nervous, Then a historic turnaround might just be on the cards. Even a brave defeat – going down with all guns blazing – would salvage some pride and set City up to reel in Chelsea in the league.
Barca have more to lose. At 2-0 up no amount of off-field issues should distract it from reaching a record seventh successive Champions League quarterfinal. If not then Martino really will face the firing squad.