Free-scoring Manchester City will face the toughest test yet of their European credentials when they face European aristocrats Barcelona in the first leg of the standout tie of the Champions League round of 16 on Tuesday.
Both teams will start what promises to be a memorable duel at the Etihad Stadium boosted by superb wins on Saturday, with City returning to their best form in beating Chelsea 2-0 in the FA Cup and Barcelona crushing Rayo Vallecano 6-0 in La Liga.
Both were also boosted by the return of important players after injury.
Samir Nasri came on as a second-half substitute for City after missing seven games and scored City’s second against Chelsea within minutes of his arrival while Neymar also returned as a substitute in the second half for the Spanish champions to score a stunning goal after four matches out to complete Barca’s scoring.
Neymar is likely to be on the bench at the start on Tuesday, which may offer some relief for the home team, who will probably have to raise their already impressive game to even greater heights if they are to knock out the four-times European champions.
City coach Manuel Pellegrini is well aware of what Barca are capable of from his time with Villarreal, Malaga and Real Madrid in Spain, while City’s free-ranging midfielder Yaya Toure spent three years at the Nou Camp and won ever major honour with them, including the Champions League in 2009.
In an interview with Champions Magazine, Toure said he expected City to win the first leg to show how far the club have come since the injection of Sheikh Mansour’s cash totally transformed them from domestic also-rans to potential European champions.
City are in uncharted waters as far as the Champions League is concerned, having been knocked out at the group stage in their two previous appearances.
But they are the highest scoring team in this season’s competition with 28 goals.
City gave a hint of their growing strength with a 3-2 win away to champions Bayern Munich in the group stage, and they have scored 117 goals in all competitions this season.
The Spanish champions had the perfect warm-up on Saturday when Messi, who looks to be back to his best after returning in early January from a two-month injury layoff, scored twice to overtake Alfredo di Stefano in La Liga scoring history. Messi’s 228 goals in 263 games took him to joint third on the all-time list with Raul, behind Telmo Zarra (251) and Hugo Sanchez (234). Messi has now scored 337 goals for Barcelona, a record for one club.
As well as Messi having an outstanding game on Saturday, midfielders Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta turned in scintillating displays and in-form forwards Pedro and Alexis also scored as Barca totally overwhelmed second-from-bottom Rayo at the Nou Camp.
Bayer Leverkusen continued…