Any passionate soccer fan looks forward to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League and undoubtedly the tie of the round (sorry Arsenal fans) is the heavyweight clash between Manchester City and Barcelona. Here I look at five reasons why I think the tiki-taka wizardry of the Spanish side will overcome the goal scoring powerhouse of Manchester over what are set to be two enthralling legs of football.
1. Messi Returning To Top Form
It’s no surprise that Barcelona are favorites to win the game according to William Hill line betting, plus that Barca are still heavily reliant on the genius of Lionel Messi and the little Argentine is starting to show a return to form following three goals in his last two games including a stunning brace in the recent 1-4 victory at Sevilla. It could be argued in his two month absence that other players such as Alexis Sanchez really came to the fore but you cannot blame Gerardo Martino for building his team around the magic of Barcelona’s number 10.
By the time the second leg comes around Messi will be perilously close to his very best which as we know borders on the unplayable. When Messi rises to the big occasion it inspires his team-mates and that is an ominous sign come this battle of two footballing giants.
2. Neymar Is Back
To add further stimulation to the boys in scarlet and blue, their big summer signing Neymar has been cleared to play in Barcelona’s La Liga clash on Saturday at home to Rayo Vallecano which pretty much guarantees the Brazilian is going to be in the squad that travels to the Etihad. Before his injury the 22-year-old was just beginning to light up the Nou Camp with the samba trickery that £48.6m was expected to bring to the Spanish champions.
Having Messi and Neymar back firing at this stage of the campaign is like completing a stunning double swoop in the January transfer window. These two superstars are only going to get better as the season reaches its climax and they will take some stopping – particularly in the second leg when both have more game time under their belt.
3. The Absence Of Sergio Aguero
Aguero is a huge loss for the first leg on Tuesday. His absence was sorely felt when Chelsea threw the form book out of the window and took all three points at the Etihad ruining their perfect 100% home record as well as stopping City scoring at home for the first time since November 2010. City cannot afford to afford a repeat performance and more importantly result on Tuesday night.
Aguero and Alvaro Negredo have combined to become one of the most prolific partnerships in the Premier League this season with the pair showing a telepathic understanding. The raw strength and power of ‘the Beast’ gels perfectly with the dynamic Argentine to create a strike partnership which has only been rivaled by the Suarez and Sturridge (SAS) duo currently working in tandem at Anfield. The 25-year-old’s has the unique ability to make something happen out of nothing and his intelligent runs leave world-class defenders in bewilderment. Barcelona are susceptible to the counter-attack as shown against Valencia two weeks ago and the direct pace of Aguero will be sorely missed should the game become stretched.
Meanwhile, I will be the first to admit that for quite some time I thought Pellegrini had overspent when he splashed £30m to bring Fernandinho to Manchester. Maybe I just didn’t allow him the time that most overseas players need to adapt to the pressures and frenetic pace of playing in the Premier League. However it has been evident in the last few months that the Brazilian allows Yaya Toure the freedom to flourish in his natural attacking role as Fernandinho takes away the defensive responsibility of the Ivory Coast international. Fernandinho has also begun to create goalscoring opportunities and add goals to his game which has given City another angle of attack to help boost their already record-breaking tally. So often the work of defensive midfielders goes under-appreciated, so Fernandinho’s return to the City squad for Tuesday’s game is a big boost.
4. Contrasting Games At The Weekend
Barcelona entertain second from bottom Rayo Vallecano on Saturday evening whilst the blue half of Manchester will be looking to exact revenge on Chelsea as the two Premier League title contenders clash once more at the Etihad – this time in the magic of the FA Cup. Pellegrini will be hoping this time to get one over on Mourinho after the self-proclaimed ‘happy one’ delivered a masterclass in both the pre-match mind games and the tactics he implemented allowing for his players to carry out the perfect game plan. Chelsea could easily have won by more than the solitary goal and you wouldn’t expect the Barcelona frontline to be as forgiving on Tuesday. Conceding one away goal wouldn’t be the worst of results for City but two or more would be a disaster (unless they score six themselves).
Pellegrini may have the strongest squad in the Premier League to pick from but you would still expect many that start against Chelsea to feature against the Spanish giants. Meanwhile Barcelona can afford to rest several star names on Saturday and still win quite comfortably as well as give a run out to Neymar. Pellegrini knows his side still have a decent shot at winning four trophies this year but even with his best XI it will take some effort the day after Valentines to break Mourinho’s love affair with the FA Cup.
5. The Second Leg Is At The Nou Camp
The Nou Camp and the Etihad have both proved to be fortresses this season. The two teams have combined to win 21 of 23 games at their respective stadiums with both sides suffering their only defeats within two days of one another. Not many teams manage to come away from Catalunya with a draw let alone a victory. However City will no doubt fancy their chances with a fully fit squad and the likely return of Fernandinho.
My main fear is that City will come unstuck in the first leg and leave themselves with too much to do in the return leg. Without a doubt they could use that famous win over Bayern Munich in December as inspiration. However rather ironically I think Pellegrini’s miscalculation in the final group game could come back to haunt them.
Come Tuesday night there will not be an empty seat inside the Etihad. To quote the man Pellegrini and Barcelona love to hate, “the whole world will be watching.”