Barcelona took a big step towards the Champions League quarter-finals, as they recorded a comfortable victory over Manchester City.
Manuel Pellegrini made several changes to his starting XI with Alvaro Negredo leading the line ahead of David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and Jesus Navas. Fernandinho returned from injury to partner Yaya Toure in midfield, while Martin Demichelis slotted in at centre-back.
Gerardo Martino made three changes to the side that defeated Rayo Vallecano over the weekend. Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano and Xavi returned to the starting lineup, while Neymar was available for selection.
Pellegrini’s tactics contained Barcelona’s attacking threats, but a defensive error shifted the tactical battle.
City without the ball
One of the interesting components regarding Pellegrini’s tactics was Manchester City’s shape without the ball, as there were two distinct features in their overall approach.
In the early moments of the match when Barcelona tried to play out of their third, City maintained a high-block and pressed Martino’s side as a unit. Fernandinho closed down Xavi, Toure stuck tight to Fabregas, and the wingers closed down Barcelona’s attack-minded full-backs. Barcelona usually played through it due to their 3v2 situation at the back with Sergio Busquets being the key man in midfield, but their was one incident in the first half that nearly led to a goal.
Fabregas won possession at the edge of Barcelona’s box and tried to play out of the back, but City’s high-block quickly pressed the Spanish champions, and Xavi conceded possession, thus resulting in Negredo firing a shot directly at Victor Valdes.
However, City often sat deeper, and focused on limiting the space between the lines. Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta stuck tight to Barcelona’s wide men, and Martino’s full-backs rarely ventured forward. Kolarov’s role on the left was to prevent Dani Alves from pushing forward, while Alba feared that Navas’ pace could harm Barcelona on the break.
City contained Barcelona’s threat for majority of the first half. Apart from a Xavi shot from distance, the away side failed to pose any threats in the final third. Messi’s involvement in the first half was also limited: he often dropped deeper in search of possession, and when he drifted towards the right, Martin Demichelis intercepted key passes and won tackles.
Barcelona dominate midfield
When assessing Barcelona’s XI pre-match, the inclusion of a fourth midfielder highlighted Martino’s intent on dominating central areas. Andres Iniesta was fielded on the left, but throughout the match he subtly interchanged positions with Fabregas.
As I stated earlier, Busquets was the key reason as to why City’s high-block wasn’t effective. With Negredo and Silva leading the press, their aim was to close down Barcelona’s centre-backs. Busquets, however, dropped in between Mascherano and Gerard Pique to create a 3v2 situation at the back, which helped Martino’s men push into City’s half.
Barcelona continued to maintain a numerical advantage when they pushed into City’s half, as their midfield trio passed around Fernandinho and Toure. Silva moved into midfield to help City cope with Barcelona’s trio, but Iniesta often drifted infield to offer an additional passing option.
With Xavi and Busquets often sitting deeper, the key men in attack were Fabregas and Iniesta. The duo repeatedly combined and attempted to pull City defenders out of position, as they offered guile and a pinch of penetration with their quick, incisive passes, and nonchalant runs towards the box.
Despite not creating many clear-cut chances in the first half, Barcelona created overloads on both ends of the field to ensure that they would dominate possession.
Although Barcelona dominated possession, Pellegrini’s men created the better chances in the first half. Their key player was Silva – who’s referred to as one of the game’s best space invaders – and here, he drifted into space between the lines, and key areas in Barcelona’s third.
Vincent Kompany’s well-weighed pass to Silva – the Belgian played an identical pass to Nasri in the buildup to Samir Nasri’s goal against Chelsea over the weekend – allowed the Spaniard to slip a ball into Negredo, and although Pique ushered him towards the byline, the City striker’s chip shot flashed across the six-yard box.
Silva was the link between midfield and attack – he often won possession in deep positions prior to making a key pass, and constantly received the ball in a pocket of space before playing it into wide areas. His pass to Navas towards the end of the half led to Negredo guiding his header inches wide of the far post.
The one issue City and Silva encountered was the tempo of their counter-attack, along with the fact that Barcelona always had numbers behind the ball. Xavi and Busquets protected the back four, while Alves and Alba’s cautious positioning ensured that Martino’s men wouldn’t get caught out of position.
Ultimately, for all of City’s admirable work both in and out of possession the tie shifted in the buildup to Messi’s opening goal. Silva once again did well to break out Barcelona’s half with the intent of launching a quick counter-attack, but with a lack of runners, he opted to play a pass to Navas on the right flank.
Busquets quickly retreated and sat alongside Alba to prevent the full-back from being isolated, thus creating a 1v2 situation. The ideal move would be to sustain possession and push forward as a unit, but Navas attempted to take both players on and was dispossessed.
This left City in an awkward position, with Toure and Fernandinho, along with their full-backs and Demichelis caught higher up the pitch, Messi moved into an onside position alongside Kompany. With fears of Barcelona’s attackers running behind the defence, Kompany dropped deeper, thus playing Messi onside.
Subsequently, Iniesta played an exceptional ball to Messi, and Demichelis’ split-second decision to prevent Messi from shooting resulted in a penalty. While many will hammer Demichelis for his decision-making, it’s difficult to name a defender that would allow Messi to shoot in that position, especially when slow-motion replays show that initial contact was made outside of the box.
Nonetheless, it was the one of the few mistakes City made prior to Demichelis’ dismissal, and a moment of brilliance from Iniesta handed Barcelona the lead.
Pellegrini makes substitutions as City go 10v11
Pellegrini quickly reacted to Demichelis’ dismissal and opted to introduce Joleon Lescott for Kolarov, and Nasri for Navas. City was now a 4-4-1 without the ball as Silva drifted to the left to protect Clichy, while Barcelona dominated possession.
Nasri’s inclusion handed Pellegrini another creative option that could expose pockets of space with Silva, and push City’s full-backs forward. Nasri exploited space in midfield after being played in by Silva, and his one-two with Negredo presented the Frenchman with space to shoot, but Mascherano blocked his attempt.
Afterwards, Silva played in Clichy down the left but his cross went directly to Valdes, and the Spaniard’s delivery from the right flank in the 86th minute was pushed away by Valdes for a corner. City’s best chance came from a Toure cross-field diagonal pass to Zabaleta, whose one-timed pass to Silva allowed the Spaniard to control the ball on his chest and volley his shot at Valdes, but the Spanish keeper made a great save to preserve Barcelona’s lead.
City continued to create chances due to Barcelona’s cautious approach, but Pellegrini’s men lacked quality in the final third.
Alves down the right
The key feat subsequent to Demichelis’ dismissal was Alves’ proactive role. The Brazilian became Barcelona’s key player in the second half, and scored the all-important second goal.
With Silva drifting into central positions to help City manufacture attacking moves, Alves capitalized on the space ahead of him, as Silva didn’t possess the energy to get back into position. This forced Clichy to defend Alves, while Lescott shifted over to cover the right-winger. Lescott’s passing from defence, positioning, and man marking was poor, as the City centre-back endured a difficult second half.
- 66th min: Iniesta plays a ball out wide to an unmarked Alves and he squares his pass to Xavi inside the box, but the Spaniard guides his shot over the net.
- 68th min: Iniesta once again supplies Alves, who then plays a one-two with Alexis Sanchez. Sanchez drags Lescott out of position and Alves runs by Clichy to receive the ball, and is free on goal but his shot glides inches wide of the post.
- 89th min: Alves plays a pass into the right channel for Neymar to chase, and the substitute plays in Alves at the edge of the box. The right-back’s first touch guides him past a leggy Clichy, and he slid his shot past Hart.
Kolarov’s departure was massive in the sense that the Serbian provided astute cover for Clichy, and prevented the left-back from being isolated against an advancing Alves. Silva didn’t have the energy to track Alves’ runs, and Lescott was easily dragged out of position, which allowed the Brazilian to dominate the right flank in the second half.
Barcelona dominated possession for large portions of the match, and their patient approach paid dividends as they pounced on Navas’ mistake, while Alves dominated the right flank in the latter stages.
“Barcelona had a lot of the ball but they had it where we wanted. They were not near our area; that’s what we wanted. The team played with courage, with personality, and tried to draw the match with ten men,” Pellegrini said.
Pellegrini’s logical approach was correct as it negated Barcelona’s threats in the final third. However, two-away goals puts City in a difficult predicament ahead of the second leg, and Pellegrini will rue the fact that a simple error disrupted the natural tactical battle.