If there’s one thing we can expect from tonight’s first leg of the Champions League round of 16 is that neither Barcelona nor Manchester City are likely to betray their football philosophies in order to secure a result.
The Catalans might have become slightly more pragmatic under Tata Martino than they were during Pep Guardiola’s reign, but the Argentine manager isn’t the sort of man who entertains the idea of building barricades either.
Manuel Pellegrini, meanwhile, made things abundantly clear in his press conference yesterday.
“We’re not going to think just about defending; what we do with the ball is the most important thing. It’s very important when we get the ball Barcelona chase us. They can get tired chasing us,” said the Manchester City manager.
Pellegrini, like the majority of his colleagues who have come across Barcelona in the last five years, will have to find a way to control Lionel Messi, particularly given that the Barca talisman looks to have rediscover form after a spell on the sideline, but were City to be defensively set up simply to limit the Argentine’s influence, things could get a lot more complicated for them.
Messi must, of course, be kept under control as much as possible – a much harder task than it sounds – but there are three key battles City must win if they’re to travel to Barcelona with a chance to progress.
1) Yaya Toure vs Andres Iniesta
Despite Messi’s brilliance, Iniesta and Xavi have often been identified as the men who really make Barcelona tick, through their ability to retain possession, before finding the pass capable to split defences wide open.
Toure, on the other hand, is just as pivotal a figure for City as his former teammate is for the Catalans, but the Ivorian giant might have to curb his attacking instincts a little or else he could leave City’s back four dangerously exposed.
Yaya’s attacking brilliance is utterly incredible and the Ivorian galloping from the middle of the pitch towards the offensive third is a sight to behold, but the former Barcelona player’s tendency to leave space behind him has been successfully exploited by Bayern Munich and Chelsea this season.
Toure tends to be dragged towards the ball, but leaving acres of space behind him could expose Fernandinho, particularly given Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas are masters at exploit little pockets of space in between the lines.
2) Alvaro Negredo vs Carles Puyol
If there’s one regret for City ahead of tonight is that they can’t count on the formidable Sergio Aguero, but Negredo’s form this season should be enough to worry Barcelona, or indeed any club across Europe.
The former Sevilla man has hit the ground running in his first season at the Etihad and has scored five goals in just two starts in the Champions League so far this season but without Aguero alongside him, Negredo is likely to have to work even harder.
Luckily for Negredo and for City, injuries and age seem to have taken their toll on the Barcelona captain, who has played just four times in the league this season and only once in the Champions League.
Puyol remains a leader and his no-nonsense attitude is still a big factor in Barcelona’s back four, but a lack of pace and match-fitness could and should be ruthlessly exposed by the man they call “The Beast”.
3) Pablo Zabaleta vs Pedro
Lionel Messi and Neymar might grab all the headlines, but in Pedro Barcelona have an underrated gem, an unselfish player who’s just a crucial to his club’s fortunes as any of the other stars he shares the pitch with.
The 26-year-old has a knack for scoring in big games – he netted in the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United – and his speed and ability to beat a man making him a dangerous customer for every defender.
Pedro has 13 goals and seven assists in La Liga this season and he’s just as comfortable at cutting inside as he is at beating his man and getting to the byline, which means Pablo Zabaleta will have his work cut out tonight.
The Argentine right-back has been one of City’s standout performers in the last few seasons, both defensively and going forward, but might have to limit his tendency to bomb down the right flank in order to contain Pedro.
Allowing the Barca speedster some space means inviting him to counter-attack and if there’s one thing City can’t afford to do tonight is to invite the Catalans on them.