Emboldened by a year’s extra experience and given hope by contrasting weekend results, Manchester City go in search of vengeance against Barcelona in the Champions League last 16 on Tuesday.
Barcelona won 4-1 on aggregate when the teams faced off at the same stage of last season’s competition and had won 11 games in a row before losing 1-0 to Malaga on Saturday, but City believe they are now better equipped to beat them.
When the teams met a year ago, City were in the thick of a sapping schedule of 14 matches in seven and a half weeks, while a hamstring injury restricted Sergio Aguero to just 45 minutes of the second leg.
Twelve months on, Aguero is fit and in form, and although Yaya Toure will miss Tuesday’s first leg at the Etihad Stadium as he completes a three-game ban, City are otherwise at full strength.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side have shrugged off a recent run of poor form to record handsome wins over Stoke City and Newcastle United, enabling them to close to within five points of leaders Chelsea in the Premier League.
But although City midfielder Samir Nasri believes his side showed Barcelona “too much respect” last year, Pellegrini has warned that his players will need to remain watchful if they are to exact revenge.
“In terms of possession, there are two things we have to think about,” said the City manager, whose side crushed Newcastle 5-0 on Saturday.
“We’ve got to try to get the ball back as quick as we can and be very intense, because they have technically gifted players who know how to keep the ball.
“And the second thing is, when we have the ball, not to give it away cheaply.”
Both games last season followed similar patterns, with Lionel Messi twice opening the scoring, Dani Alves twice adding a late goal, and City twice having a defender sent off — Martin Demichelis in the first leg and Pablo Zabaleta in the second.
– Bony eyes competition debut –
Demichelis’s dismissal at the Etihad, for a last-man foul on Messi that yielded a penalty from which the Argentine put Barcelona ahead, left Pellegrini furious and he was given a two-game touchline ban by UEFA for lambasting Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson.
Now under the tutelage of Luis Enrique, Barcelona are a different team to the tiki-taka devotees of old, spring-mounted to move the ball forward as quickly as possible to a devastating front three of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Messi, who has already scored 14 goals in 2015.
Enrique had to field several questions about his side’s loss to Malaga during a tetchy pre-match press conference, but he said the sense of occasion on Tuesday would help his team refocus.
Asked if playing in England provided extra motivation, the Barcelona coach said: “It certainly does when you travel to a country like this with such a tradition offootball.
“Particularly when playing against an opponent like yourself with a motivation to win the Champions League.
“We’re going into the decisive phase of the tournament. Only one of us can go through, so obviously you take it really, really seriously.”
City have already demonstrated that they can thrive in Europe without Toure, having engineered a stunning group-phase escape — a stirring 3-2 win against Bayern Munich, in which Aguero scored a hat-trick, followed by a 2-0 victory at Roma — without the influential Ivorian in their ranks.
Fit again after a knee problem, James Milner could be drafted into midfield, while Aguero is expected to lead the line alone, with new signing and Champions League newcomer Wilfried Bony on the bench.
Discipline will be a key concern for the hosts, however, with Aguero, Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Edin Dzeko all one booking away from suspension.
Barcelona’s group-phase progress was rather more serene, despite a 3-2 loss at Paris Saint-Germain, and their only absentees are long-term injury victims Thomas Vermaelen and Douglas. – Agence France-Presse