Barca looking to get 2014 back on track as City arrive with two-goal deficit from first leg
Visit of English side offers potential relief from poor domestic run and unwelcome headlines off the pitch
Barcelona host Manchester City in the second leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Wednesday desperately in need of a good performance to distract attention from a dreadful start to 2014 on and off the field.
When the Catalans were given the toughest draw open to them in a pairing with City back in December, it was a minor setback on what had up until then been a season that had exceeded expectations.
Despite being hastily appointed just two weeks before the campaign kicked off, as Tito Vilanova was forced to resign due to on-going health problems, coach Gerardo Martino had overseen Barca’s best ever start to a La Liga season.
Martino’s first defeat in charge came in the Champions League to a youthful Ajax side in November, but that mattered little as Barca strolled through to the last 16 as winners of Group H.
However, this year has so far proved to be a more trying time for the club.
In January, Sandro Rosell resigned as president due to on-going legal action over the alleged misappropriation of funds in connection with the controversial signing of Brazilian star Neymar last May.
The club were then charged with tax fraud over the transfer and paid 13.5 million euros (HK$145 million) to the Spanish treasury despite protesting that they had not committed any offence.
Those fiscal troubles have now been accompanied by on-field woes and Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to lowly Valladolid was their third in six La Liga matches.
Barca now trail historical rivals Real Madrid by four points in the title race and still have to travel to Madrid to face Los Blancos in a potential title decider on March 23.
Neymar’s arrival, moreover, has been far more noteworthy for its impact off the field than on it. He has struggled to strike up a partnership with four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi and looks a shadow of the player he has seemed at international level with Brazil.
The return of the Champions League does provide potential relief for the embattled Martino. Barca’s 2-0 win away at the Etihad over City three weeks ago is widely seen as his most impressive result since taking charge and the English side’s visit to the Camp Nou offers the chance to dismiss the team’s critics.
It would take an historic collapse for Barca to not progress to the last eight as no side has ever come back from losing 2-0 at home in the Champions League era. Yet, having reached a record six successive semi-finals in the competition, the growing feeling is that Barcelona are a side in transition.
Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes, two of the key figures of the team that has won three Champions Leagues and six La Liga titles over the past decade, have announced they will leave the club at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, the midfield general of that side that conquered Europe, Xavi Hernandez, is now 34 and plagued by injuries that prevent him from having the impact he once did.
The 2-0 deficit may prove to be too big for even the high-scoring City to overcome. However, they may never have a better opportunity to announce their arrival as a big player on the Champions League stage than landing the knockout blow to the confidence-sapped, four-time European champions on their own patch.
To that end, City striker Sergio Aguero could play a crucial role. The Argentina stirker, who missed the first leg through injury but returned for City’s English League Cup final victory on March 2, scored five goals in 10 La Liga games against Barca for Atletico Madrid between 2006 and 2011.
“As always in important games the individual performance of players is key,” City coach Manuel Pellegrini – who has labelled Aguero the third best player in the world behind his Argentina team mate Messi and Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo – said on Monday.
“Of course it’s difficult,” added the Chilean, in his first season in charge at City following stints in Spain with Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga. “But I don’t have any doubt that we are going to Barcelona thinking that we can do it, that we can beat them in Camp Nou and we will try to have our revenge there.”
Pellegrini also has experience of Barca’s daunting arena, Europe’s biggest stadium. He faced them 22 times during his La Liga coaching career but only managed four victories, most recently a 2-1 win at the Nou Camp in March 2008, when in charge of Villarreal. He lost both Clasicos against Barca as Real coach in the 2009-10 season, 1-0 away and 2-0 at home.
“It’s difficult because they are a very good team with great players and that’s the most important thing,” Pellegrini said. “We will try to get the tempo we need to score goals. If we can score a goal early Barcelona may be more nervous.
“There are so many things affecting the outcome of big games that it is very difficult to know what will be the key factor. If we have a good day I am absolutely sure we can do it.”
Barca midfielder Cesc Fabregas believes possession will be key to stopping any historic comeback from the visitors.
“We cannot let it become an open match, running up and down the whole time because that plays to their strengths,” the former Arsenal captain said. “We need to control the game by having the ball and creating opportunities, but the most important thing is to finish our attacks so we don’t allow them to play on the counter-attack. I think we need to be almost perfect to ensure we go through to the quarter-finals.”
Martino has a fully-fit squad to choose from and is expected to make just one change from the first leg, with Neymar coming in for Chilean Alexis Sanchez up front.
Besides having Aguero available, Pellegrini will recall Brazilian international Fernandinho and captain Vincent Kompany, who were rested in Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final home defeat to Championship side Wigan. David Silva and Aleksandar Kolarov are also expected to start after being left on the bench for the Wigan game. Martin Demichelis is suspended after being sent off in the first leg.