Ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League match against Manchester City, we sat down and discussed the contest with Alex Timperley from our sister blog Typical City. Here’s our exchange!
Lionel Messi was the catalyst for the win in the Camp Nou. How will City try to limit Messi for the game in Manchester?
Messi did indeed have a good game but I don’t think another special plan will need to be made for him. Until Bravo got himself sent off in the most moronic way possible, City were doing a pretty good job of containing your midfield and that world class front line you are lucky enough to watch every week. There was clearly a plan to starve Messi and Neymar of the ball as much as possible and flood the centre – and it worked really quite well. No objective observer could claim Barcelona were massively superior to City until the red card when it all changed. The opening goal was the result of an unfortunate slip and the goals after the red card were fair enough; as Guardiola said, playing against this Barcelona with ten men is basically an impossible task. I would expect to see something similar in the return leg, along with a lot more added Sergio Aguero.
Pep Guardiola received a lot of criticism for not starting Sergio Agüero and not playing with a true striker. Will Agüero start next match? If so, who will he replace?
Yes, Aguero will certainly start on Tuesday. If he doesn’t I will throw myself off the third tier in protest. As alluded to above, I don’t think Guardiola’s plan for the first leg was a bad one at all. Even though it involved leaving out the world’s best centre forward, it was working until Bravo lost his head and lost us the game. However. However, Aguero will quite rightfully start on Tuesday. He is too good a player to leave out again and he’s back in the goals now after a tough couple of weeks. Overall, as is always the case with football, the criticism of Guardiola for leaving him out was excessive. It is easier as fans with hindsight to say that Aguero should have been included but, again, City were playing really quite well until the red card. Who will Aguero replace? That’s a good question. My gut instinct says Nolito will drop to the bench as the front four of Aguero, Silva, De Bruyne and Sterling has been deadly this season and would rightfully scare the living daylights out of your defence which I believe is missing both Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba.
Pep said he wouldn’t change his tactics just because City got a bad result. Is he being honest? If not, what might change tactically for the return match?
I think Guardiola is being honest, yes. The style of football he espouses runs through the whole club from the under-9 age group all the way to the first team. He is in the process of adapting to the Premier League – most obviously by finding a way to make playing out from the back work in our league – but he isn’t deviating from his principles. As you know, it’s a lot of fun to watch! This certainty in his methods applies to the Champion’s League as well. The return leg at the Etihad will see a very similar set up on our part, just hopefully without the unfortunate slips and stupid red card this time! Like I said above, the tactical plan was not the reason for the bad result, and the bad result doesn’t reflect a bad game on City’s part. It was our best performance against Barcelona and it is a cruel irony that it produced our worst result. At least it wasn’t a bad loss in a knockout tie this time!
How important is team psyche heading into this match? City’s form has been kind of shaky lately; Barça have just won a feisty game against Valencia. Will team spirit play a role in this contest?
Team spirit always plays a role in games at the highest Champion’s League level. You are right to say that our results have been shaky but our performances haven’t been atrocious overall. On other days we would have beaten both Everton and Southampton with similar performances and the defeat to Manchester United in the League Cup was a result of playing the B Team. Guardiola has rightly noted that the squad we currently have is not capable of fighting on four fronts so that game was sacrificed to the gods of sensible forward planning. City’s team spirit is fine at the moment. Guardiola has certainly changed the attitude of the players already, which is remarkable after being in charge for less than 6 months. A run of 6 games without a win under Pellegrini, especially including a few games we should have won, would have seen this team’s confidence and self-belief crater, but this is simply not evident under Guardiola. This City team won’t turn up with an inferiority complex on Tuesday – a first for us, probably. The fans on the other hand still don’t really believe, but that’s for the manager and the players to fix. We don’t really think we’re top level yet. We made PSG look pretty rubbish but we haven’t really shown how good we are against a proper top team like Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid. That’s the next step for us.
Finally, Alex, what’s your prediction for the match?
My prediction for the match is that if City score the first goal then we will win. If not, then it will be a draw. Either would make me very happy. Your defence is weak enough at the moment that if Aguero and De Bruyne in particular make the early running then I could see them panicking. The midfield battle will be very interesting as well. Fernandinho and Gundogan are in good form and Barcelona, without Iniesta, look weaker than usual. Our defence is still in the process of cutting out the silly mistakes but a good showing from John Stones and Vincent Kompany will see us through. Can’t predict a final result but I feel better about this than I probably should do!
And now, we answer their questions!
Your question to me on Messi was an interesting one and I’m keen to get your take on it too. Just how do you stop Lionel Messi? Is nullifying him even possible?
Well, nullifying Messi is somewhat of a laughable notion for a Barcelona fan (I’ll explain why later) but to do it, you’d have to overload the field on Messi’s side. Have one player designated to keep an eye on Messi and be ready to smother him and have the rest of the team shift ever so slightly to cut off Messi’s space. However, it’s impossible to truly nullify Messi because besides having great quality with the ball at his feet, he has a great feel for the game and will make the easy play when it presents himself. He fires off passes with such accuracy and nonchalance that even the viewer watching on TV can’t see them as an option. This is what separates Messi and makes him the best player in the world. With him, you have to pick your poison; play Barça up front and hope to withstand Messi or target him and risk him getting everyone involved and in space.
Despite the fact we lost 4-0, it’s generally accepted that City’s performance at Camp Nou was probably the best we’ve ever played against Barcelona in the Champions League and it felt like we were in the game until Bravo was sent off. Did it look that way to you and are you concerned that this time, City might finally manage a win over Blaugrana?
Of course it’s always a possibility, but am I concerned? No, not really. Yes, City played well, and they had good chances in the first half and beginning of the second, but at the end of the day Barcelona did win 4-0, and there’s no particular reason they can’t do it again. City are a fantastic club, and congrats on their play this season, but Barcelona are still packing the most prolific offense in Europe and the new additions like Samuel Umtiti (who had a great match in Barcelona) have stepped up in the defense. Historically, there’s no basis for a City win. City haven’t looked all that impressive and although they did have a good game, they’ve made a lot of mistakes – Bravo’s blunder and Stones’ whiffed pass against Tottenham, to name the two I can think of off the top of my head – and Barça’s pressuring style is likely to force a few more.
Obviously, he won’t be playing in this game, but talk to me about Claudio Bravo. City fans have been slow to take to him so far and errors like the one he made at Camp Nou haven’t helped him. He played for Barca for two seasons and seemed to be generally highly rated there. What do you think of him?
I think Bravo is a fine keeper who played very well for us the two years he was here. The Chilean was a strong presence in the box who was decisive and effective. One thing, though – when I heard Pep wanted Bravo to play out of the back, I was confused. I could imagine Marc-André ter Stegen being asked to pass the ball, but over two years with us, I don’t think Bravo had made any more passes than ter Stegen would make in a week. Bravo is facing an adjustment period in the Premier League, playing a different style, more with his feet than ever before, and of course he won’t be great right away. Give him some time, and he’ll be as comfortable on the ball as he is between the sticks.
Pep Guardiola is obviously one of Barcelona’s most famous sons of recent years but there still seems to be a little bit of skepticism about his ability in England. Do you back him to be a success at City?
Same as with Bravo, time is needed to pass judgement. Trust Barça (and Bayern Munich) fans, Pep is a great coach. He revolutionized the game and is great at making adjustments (like dropping Sergio Agüero , which unfortunately didn’t work out) and learning from results (Agüero will totally play next match). As you said, where in earlier years, City would have lost their spirit, Pep has them fighting and believing in themselves. That’s an accomplishment already. Anyway, many fans outside of England feel scepticism about the scepticism of his ability. Despite all the talk, aren’t City first in the Premier League? A win is a win no matter how ugly, and so far City’s been pretty good at winning. So calm down, City fans. Pep will probably win you a trophy or two.
Given that you always beat us when we play each other, Barcelona seem almost indestructible to us but you’ve had a couple of poor results in La Liga this season so, obviously, that isn’t the case. Who or what are Barca’s weaknesses?
Well, not to deflect the question, but Barcelona’s been plagued by the injury bug this season big time. The defense has suffered (every player has missed time or is missing right now, a list that includes Gerard Piqué, Jérémy Mathieu, Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, and Samuel Umtiti) and Andrés Iniesta is out, as was Messi. This is a big reason why Barça have struggled so far. Their only real inherent weakness that couldn’t be fixed by having players actually available is a quick, speedy winger that could get in behind the defense – something that City unfortunately lacks outside of Raheem Sterling. Well, unfortunately for City, anyway.
And finally, your prediction please?
Round two will be closer than the last one, but Barcelona will still win it. City might score first, but Barcelona have come from behind before this year and that won’t necessarily be the tipping point in the game. Their offense will be too much for City to stop and their defense will do a decent job. Ter Stegen will have a couple of great saves, as he did last time out, but I predict a Barça victory to the tune of 1-2.