By Martyn Herman
Manchester City have been on a steep learning curve in the Champions League but Tuesday’s last 16 first-leg clash with four-time European kings Barcelona offers a chance to show they are now serious contenders.
Last season’s exit at the identical stage also against Barca, 4-1 on aggregate, revealed City’s shortcomings in a squad good enough to win the Premier League but still lacking authority and discipline against Europe’s very best.
A year later, however, and City are approaching the tie with growing optimism, even if they will be missing midfield talisman Yaya Toure at the Etihad on Tuesday as he completes a three-match suspension for his red card against CSKA Moscow.
After finding their creative edge blunted in recent months, City’s attacking flair returned with a vengeance as they crushed Newcastle United 5-0 in the Premier League on Saturday.
In contrast, Barca’s lethal-looking frontline misfired badly at the weekend as their 11-match unbeaten run ended in a surprise 1-0 defeat by a well-drilled Malaga side.
City’s run to the last 16 a year ago was their best effort in the competition after two successive failures to survive the group stage and they will be buoyed by the way they sneaked into the knockout round this time, beating Bayern Munich and AS Roma.
Both of those victories were recorded without Toure.
On-loan midfielder Frank Lampard, a veteran of many battles with Barca from his Chelsea days, says that while the Catalans must be respected, City have the weapons to out-gun Barcelona and reach the last eight for the first time.
“You can admire and respect them so long as that doesn’t transmit into giving them too much space to do what they do best,” said Lampard, who was in the Chelsea side that beat Barca in the semis on the way to their 2012 Champions League triumph.
“I played against Barcelona when they were at their very best four or five years ago and they were absolutely flying – in truth, there’s not much you can do when they play like that – but we have players who can hurt them, too.”
In Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri, Manuel Pellegrini’s City side can score goals but keeping Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez quiet, as well as having 11 men on the pitch unlike last season, will be the key.
Messi scored in both legs last term and has recently been in scintillating form again, even if he was subdued against Malaga.
Barca defender Gerard Pique says City’s natural propensity to attack could play into his side’s hands as they seek an eighth successive place in the quarter-finals.
“City are a team that is more attack-minded and that will help us as it will be a more open game,” he said.
“We need to put Malaga behind us because on Tuesday we face the most important game of the year.”