Here’s the thing. Even if Barcelona didn’t already beat Manchester City two years ago with basically the same exact team they have now, and even if they hadn’t beaten Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich team in the Champions League, there’s no reason to worry. Because they did, and they will again. There’s no reason to fear City.
Entertaining narratives aside, Barcelona have improved a lot since their 2014/15 Champions League win. MSN are looking even more dangerous than they looked then, they have reinforcements for the bench, and their coach, Luis Enrique, is more experienced. They’ve started the season in dramatic fashion, beating Real Betis 6-2 off a Luis Suarez hat-trick. Their new signings have been surprisingly better than expected, adapted faster than expected, and their chances in the league are looking good. Then came the Champions League group draw on the 25th. Every Barça fan at this point knows they’ve drawn Manchester City, and surprisingly, people are worried about it and nervous. Not every Barça fan, but many.
A big reason why is that Pep is a great coach. He won the treble back in 2009. He won fourteen trophies in four seasons for Barcelona. They’re right, for the most part, these worried fans. He is a heck of a coach. But they might not be giving enough credit to the coach we have right now.
Luis Enrique has enjoyed success as manager of Barcelona on a level on par with Pep. He’s won 7 trophies in two years, the same as Pep did, and he’s going to get 100 wins as manager at a faster rate than Guardiola.
Despite his success, he’s had many detractors. Johan Cruyff said it would be “impossible” for Lionel Messi and Neymar to play together under him, and he’s shown that to be false. His leadership has allowed the team to click. People say he only wins because he has MSN. To those people: Pep had prime Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, along with Messi, Thierry Henry, and Samuel Eto’o at one point. He also had one of the most stacked teams in recent years in Bayern Munich (with Thomas Müller, Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Manuel Neuer) and lost in the semifinals of the CL to Barcelona led by – guess who – Luis Enrique.
Is Luis Enrique a better coach than Pep? Probably not – Pep was revolutionary in his style of play, and it’s true that Enrique could never have done what he has without Pep’s influence first. Just don’t underestimate Lucho while overestimating Pep.
But that’s only a part of the worry. City is a good team, and it’s true, anything can happen in a game of football. But there’s precedence against City, and there’s no reason to think there’ll be any significant difference this year.
There are 17 holdovers from the 2014/15 season when Barça won the tie 3-1, (Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Aleksandr Kolarov, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho, Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna, Samir Nasri, Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy, Nicolás Otamendi, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala, Jesús Navas, and Fernando) and a quick glance shows that these are all players that have played significant minutes for City. Joe Hart would also be in the list if his situation wasn’t so unclear at the moment.
Likewise, Barça still have Messi, Neymar, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets, Iniesta, Ivan Rakitić, Marc-andré ter Stegen, Gerard Piqué… need I go on? The teams are essentially the same as before. That is, the starters are almost the same. One thing Barça have now is depth, something they didn’t have to the same extent then. If Barcelona beat Man City, and Barcelona are now better, shouldn’t Barcelona beat Man City more comfortably now?
Another important element is form going into the tie. Barcelona have been very impressive so far this season, even without Neymar, who was in Brazil for the Olympics, and Iniesta and Javier Mascherano, who both missed the first game of La Liga with injury. This is where the new signings come in again, supplying depth so that even when we’re missing key players Barça can keep playing at a high level. We’ve seen a Barça team that’s made an early case for being the best team in Europe.
One last point here: It’s the group stage, not the final. What’s important is that Barça advance. Looking at the group, it’s hard to imagine a situation where they don’t advance, regardless of what happens against City. City are a worthy opponent that should be taken seriously. We shouldn’t act as if we have these games in the bag and we’re guaranteed to win. But do we really need to worry?