If there’s one Champions League game that should guarantee goals this week, it’s Manchester City vs. Barcelona. Anything else would be a letdown from this round-of-16 meeting between two lethal attacking teams. City, with 117 goals in 40 games, hosts a Barcelona side that has netted just six fewer this season.
For City, Tuesday’s game is a landmark occasion, a first game in the knockout phase of European football’s elite competition, playing the four-time winners. But the message from Manchester seems clear: Barcelona, champions in 2009 and 2011, is a team in decline.
“Maybe they don’t play as well as three or four years ago, but that is normal,” City winger Jesus Navas said. “The rivals study the way you play and find a tactic to counteract your strengths. The cycles in football don’t last forever.”
Will those words backfire at the Etihad Stadium? Here are five things to know about Tuesday’s match.
Question of style
So Navas thinks the Catalan giants have been found out? Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino still hopes the team’s ability to retain possession with short, precise passes can unlock City.
“Whoever has the ball for longer will have a better chance to win,” Martino said.
The players have been encouraged by Martino to vary their attacking strategies with long passes and long-range shots this season, while Barcelona’s defense continues to be brittle at the back against set pieces.
Six of the 17 goals Barcelona has conceded in the Spanish league this season have come from corner kicks, when its typically shorter players can be exposed over the top.
Messi and Neymar
When Barcelona signed Neymar from Santos last year, it brought one of the world’s most promising young strikers together with Lionel Messi to form one of the potentially most dangerous attacking duos in Europe.
The problem is they haven’t both been fit to play together often for the Spanish leaders. They were on the pitch at the same time for just 12 minutes on Saturday in a 6-0 rout of Rayo Vallecano.
Messi came off after scoring twice as he netted in three consecutive games for the first time since September. Neymar only came on for the final half-hour in his first action since a month-long injury layoff with right ankle injury.
City was mediocre in the previous two seasons in the Champions League, slumping out before the knockout rounds under Roberto Mancini. It’s taken the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini to establish City as a European force this season, winning five and losing just once to holder Bayern Munich in the group stage.
Pellegrini has Champions League pedigree, steering Villarreal and Malaga into the quarterfinals while managing in Spain.
City remains in contention for silverware on four fronts. It is third in the Premier League, three points behind leader Chelsea with a game in hand, into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup after beating Chelsea on Saturday and it will contest the League Cup final next month.
First competitive match
A sign of City’s lack of top-level European heritage is the fact Manchester United’s less-successful neighbors have never played Barcelona in a competitive match. One of their six friendlies saw Barcelona officially open the Etihad in 2003 when City won.
Eleven years on, thanks to the influx of Abu Dhabi wealth and subsequent success since 2008, City is ready to ready to grow. Planning permission has been granted to expand the venue capacity from almost 48,000 to more to 60,000, anticipating a higher demand from fans.
By contrast, Barcelona is looking to expand the capacity of the Camp Nou by more than 5,000 seats to 105,000 by 2021.
City’s Spanish connections
Despite City as a club having no competitive experience of Barcelona, the manager and many of the players have. There are four Spaniards in the squad for Tuesday’s game: Javi Garcia, Alvaro Negredo, Navas and David Silva. And Yaya Toure, the force in City’s midfield, was signed from Barca.
On top of that, City chief executive Ferran Soriano was a former Barca vice president, and director of football Txiki Begiristain held the same job at Barca after a playing career with the team.