Manchester City face uphill battle vs. Barcelona in UCL tie

The Champions League knockout rounds continue across the FOX family this week with four powerhouse matchups, highlighted on Tuesday when Manchester City welcome Barcelona to the Etihad (2 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) in a rematch of last year’s round of 16. Italians Juventus host struggling Dortmund on FOX Sports 2 in our other game of the day.

Manchester City are lucky to still be in Europe at all. After collecting just two points from their first four games, City stunned Bayern Munich 3-2 on MatchDay 5 before downing Roma 2-0 to record the Citizens’ first-ever win on Italian soil. The campaign had more than a whiff of Houdini about it, but their reward was landing perhaps their toughest opponent possible in Barcelona.

Barcelona beat them in both legs of this same fixture last season, 2-0, then 2-1 for a 4-1 win on aggregate. In that first game, City contained Barcelona well for a half, using a single striker up top and opting for a more muscular style in an attempt to break up Barcelona’s passing game. That all came undone after the break when Martin Demichelis was sent off, and Lionel Messi was allowed to step up and sink the ensuing penalty kick. Down to ten men, City quickly found themselves forced back, and when Dani Alves finished a slick set of passes with Neymar to slot the ball under Joe Hart in the final minute, he snuffed out whatever hopes City fans might have retained.

While City have made all the right noises coming into the game – captain Vincent Kompany says the Sky Blues don’t “fear” Barcelona while Samir Nasri opined the club “could make history” – the fact is this City side has been erratic at best this season. They have limply defended their title, and after enduring a five game winless streak that also saw them dumped out of the FA Cup it took games against Stoke and Newcastle to finally get back to winning ways.

One thing City does have going for them is Sergio Aguero: after injury frustrations and layoffs, Aguero is finally back to peak form and dazzled against an admittedly insipid Newcastle side on the weekend. After that, there are some problems. To begin with, Yaya Toure is suspended for the match, benching City’s most influential player. City’s rejiggered defense does look stronger this time out, with Eliaquim Mangala preferred to Demichelis, but the lack of Toure means that there is a disconnect between City’s crafty playmakers – Samir Nasri and David Silva – and a backline that has shown that is can be beaten by patient teams. It is an open question whether or not Wilfried Bony will get a run-out; he looked short of full match fitness in a cameo on the weekend, missing a gilt-edged chance.

HEAR US OUT

Manuel Pellegrini pointed to a relatively quieter schedule ahead of this fixture as a reason to hope for better things. Addressing the media Monday, Pellegrini said, “Last year was different to this year. We arrived at this stage of the Champions League after playing 19 games in two months, but I hope this year we will do it as we are not playing so many games.”

But Pellegrini did hint that, once again, the Citizens would look to contain Barcelona, saying “at this stage of the competition when you play over 180 minutes it is very important to win the first game. After that, try not to concede goals here at home. If you can’t, draw.”

There’s a reason for that: Barcelona boast a fierce attacking trident that until this weekend, was starting to look unstoppable. Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have finally gelled and have 13 goals between them in the tournament to date.  But Barcelona also hit a snag, of sorts, this weekend when their 11-game winning streak was snapped unexpectedly by Malaga in a 1-0 reversal. No matter, Barcelona still look a ferocious team in Europe and eased into this round with a game to spare. Sitting four points behind Real Madrid in the table, Barcelona’s La Liga hopes are not extinguished – but are in severe jeopardy. That may shift manager Luis Enrique’s thinking on the domestic campaign, and pile more pressure onto a successful European campaign.

Aside from the absence of defender Thomas Vermaelen with a season-ending injury, Barcelona have no notable absentees heading into the match.

In our other game of the day, Carlos Tevez and Serie A leaders Juventus take on a Dortmund side that only recently was flirting with relegation. Jurgen Klopps’ men have been impressive in Europe this season, which makes their domestic form – they currently sit 12th, a full 30 points behind Bayern Munich – that much more puzzling. Dortmund are finally riding a bit of a hot streak, reeling off three straight wins entering this game. Key to that has been the form of Marco “Rolls” Reus, one of the best young players in the Bundesliga, if not anywhere.

Juventus, on the other hand, look to have already have one mitt on the scudetto with Roma’s challenge fading badly. But the Old Lady’s play in Europe has not been as stellar. Despite a lineup that boasts Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon, they stumbled to second place in their group behind Atletico Madrid. Dortmund may have their woes, but they are faster and sharper than Juventus, and should get a result.