Manchester City were the masters of their own demise at the Camp Nou, as mistake after mistake at the back from the visitors allowed a rampant Lionel Messi the easiest hat trick of his life, and extended Pep Guardiola’s miserable record with visiting teams at his old stomping grounds.
Looking to keep an in-form Raheem Sterling quiet, Luis Enrique rushed Jordi Alba back from injury for this game, a gamble that didn’t quite pay off; Alba had to be subbed off in the 10th minute, having aggravated his injury in one of the early skirmishes with Sterling, and was replaced by Lucas Digne, who was widely expected to start.
Elsewhere, Javier Mascherano filled in at right back (Aleix Vidal, too, is injured), and Gerard Pique partnered summer signing Samuel Umtiti in the centre. The rest of the side was as expected.
Barcelona came into this match off the back of a 4 – 0 win over Deportivo La Coruna, that saw Leo Messi score on his return from injury. Despite already scoring a league high 26 goals so far, Barca have had an okay-ish start to the new season, by their standards, with five wins and two losses in the opening eight games, and currently sit fourth in the table, two points behind leaders Atletico Madrid.
Despite the so far limited playing time together, the MSN had already scored an astonishing 23 goals in 11 games across all competitions heading into this match, and with Messi finally back from injury, the deadliest trio ever assembled in world football was raring to go.
On the injury front, the Catalans were without Jasper Cillessen, Aleix Vidal, and Sergi Roberto.
Here’s how Barcelona lined up:
Pep Guardiola must feel like the unluckiest man in all of football right now. He rectified all the mistakes made from his earliest visit to the Camp Nou with Bayern Munich, overloaded the midfield, and sent his Manchester City team out with clear instructions and a solid plan.
A plan, that almost worked to perfection. Almost. Up until that first goal, and on occasions after it, it almost felt like Barca were the away side. Pep’s City team pressed the life out of those Catalan defenders, forcing them to stick to long passes, and carved up chance after chance, only for the ball to either be given away cheaply in the final third, or to not find anyone in the box from an exquisite cross.
Then, Fernandinho slipped in his own box, giving Lionel Messi a free run at Claudio Bravo, and from there on in it was out of Pep’s hands.
The team selection from the former Barca captain was surprising, to say the least. Pep dropped Sergio Aguero to the bench, and beefed up his midfield by sticking Kevin de Bruyne in the ‘false nine’ role. At the back, Vincent Kompany was still on the bench, and Pablo Zabaleta filled in for the injured Bacary Sagna, despite many expecting Gael Clichy to start at right back.
Domestically, the Sky Blues have had an excellent start to the season, with six wins out of eight, and sit atop the premier league table. You can rest assured Pep will have had a sleepless night, dissecting just why his side can’t seem to translate their league form onto the European stage.
Bacary Sagna and Fabian Delph were the only two absentees through injury.
This is how Manchester City lined up:
City press hard early on:
The most notable thing about the early exchanges was just how high Manchester City were willing to press the ball. Raheem Sterling and Nolito were often found rushing at the fullbacks straight from the pass from Ter Stegen, and it seemed to be working. The Barcelona defenders were being forced into long, wayward passes, and a took a long time to establish their passing rhythm.
When in possession themselves, the City midfielders moved the ball around well, and it almost seemed like Barcelona were the away side, given how dominant the visitors were on the ball.
Messi scores against the run of play:
Of course, the problem with pressing Barcelona high up the pitch is that when the likes of Lio Messi do the get the opportunity and the space to run at defenders, it makes them even more lethal.
The little maestro broke the deadlock with an eventually well taken effort, albeit with a little help from an opposition error.
Messi brought the ball forward from midfield, and fed it into Iniesta’s feet, who had his back to goal inside the box. The Spaniard completed the exchange with what seemed like an overhit through ball straight into Fernandinho’s path, who was waiting in the centre, but the Brazilian slipped, and Messi pounced.
The Argentine faked to shoot, putting Bravo on the ground, went past him with a dribble, and finished into the open net.
Barcelona had been dominated by the Citizens up until that point, and while the goal was very much against the run of play, it completely changed the landscape of the match.
Barcelona now slowly got back into the game, and started to dominate proceedings. Man City still kept up their press, but the need for a goal forced up the backline, and the home side carved out two or three more excellent goal scoring opportunities before the halftime whistle with those iconic crossfield through balls into Neymar and Suarez.
Manchester City’s aggressive tackling:
After being forced into an early change due to his own error, Luis Enrique then had to make a second change to his starting XI, all before halftime, when Pique was brought down by a very rash tackle from David Silva. The centre back was replaced by Jeremy Mathieu
The tackle, itself, followed an early theme in the match. City’s press meant they were desperate to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, and it was strange to see just how often the game was being stopped to allow a Barca player treatment after a rash tackle from their opposite number.
First half ended 1 – 0 to Barcelona:
Perhaps the most telling stat from the first half was the share of possession. At the Camp Nou, it’s rare to see Barca ever going lower than their customary 60+% possession over the course of a game. It’s even rarer to see them have the ball only 53% of the time, which was how the possession stood at the end of the opening 45.
It was a testament to how well Pep has set up his side, and how well they had played up until that point. Both sides had an almost equal share of chances created and, despite Barca’s lead, the match looked far from over.
Claudio Bravo gets sent off:
Seven minutes into the second half, Claudio Bravo had an absolute nightmare against his former club.
The Chilean needlessly came out of his box to intercept a through ball meant for Luis Suarez, despite having two defenders running alongside the striker. With Suarez breathing down his neck, Bravo attempted to clear the ball, only to give it straight to his former teammate, who then tried to chip the keeper. Bravo put his hands up, and palmed the ball away, about 6 yards outside his box.
The referee was in good view of the entire thing, and sent the goalkeeper off with a straight red card. Guardiola was forced into a double change of his own, with Nolito coming off to bring on Willy Caballero, and Gael Clichy replacing Pablo Zabaleta, who was injured in the build up to the incident.
Ten men down and with a shuffled back four — Otamendi moved to right back, Kolarov to left centre back, and Clichy to right back — Manchester City were dominated for the rest of the game, as Barca settled into their trademark rhythm and started to carve their visitors open.
Messi scores his second and third:
With a man advantage, it was now Barca’s turn to press City high up the pitch. Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic were constantly nicking the ball off Fernandinho and Gundogan, and City’s back four seemed all over the place.
Amidst all the havoc at the back for the visitors, Leo Messi doubled his side’s lead. Andres Iniesta won the ball just outside the City box, and fed it straight into the Argentine’s path, who took a touch past a defender before curling a sweet effort straight into the near post.
Eight minutes, and a missed chance for City at the other end, later, Leo completed his hat trick with the simplest of finishes. A back pass by Fernandinho was strangely left to run by John Stones, who had Luis Suarez in close company. The number 9 ran in behind the City back line, and fed a simple squared pass into Messi’s feet, who had only Caballero to beat with a simple one touch finish.
The dying stages of the game:
The game livened up in the dying stages of the game, when Jeremy Mathieu foolishly got himself sent off for a needless challenge on Raheem Sterling, after being given a yellow card a few minutes ago.
Despite their extra man advantage gone, Barca continued to press and harass the City defenders. Leo Messi won a penalty after going through the entire back line, and being chopped down by Aleksandar Kolarov.
Neymar stepped up to take the penalty, saw his weak effort saved, but made amends only a few minutes later with a well taken goal.
Messi fed him the ball after going past a few challenges in the box, and the Brazilian stopped to shoot, faked past John Stones who seemed to forget which foot was which, and finished calmly in the far post to complete what was now a rout for the home side.
Full time: Barcelona 4 – 0 Manchester City:
It was a cruel ending to the game for Pep Guardiola, who has now failed to win in four visits to Spain, and saw his Bayern Munich and Manchester City sides concede a combined seven goals at the Camp Nou!
For Barcelona, it was further confirmation of just how far ahead they are of most opposition, and should they continue to play like they did today, Luis Enrique’s men could find themselves contesting yet another Champions League final.