Pep Guardiola’s new look Manchester City will be put to their sternest test yet, as they take on the mighty Barcelona at Pep’s old stomping grounds, the Camp Nou.
The many subplots that surround this game will be dissected by all those concerned as kickoff time draws near, and not just the return of the prodigal son.
For one, there’s the fact that the last time the side from Manchester visited the Camp Nou, they were torn apart by a rampant Barca. The final score may only have been 1 – 0 to the Catalans, but it was an all around masterclass from Luis Enrique’s men, who look even more devastating time around.
Then, there’s the added factor of the personnel changes. Both sides recruited shrewdly in the summer, adding much needed depth to the squad in Barcelona’s case, and revamping the first XI entirely over in Manchester. Luis Enrique’s men will be up against an almost new set of faces this time around, which only adds to the intrigue for this encounter.
Lastly, of course, is the “Pep” factor. The Catalan will be hoping for a more pleasant return to the Camp Nou this season, after his Bayern Munich side were completely blown away by the brilliance of one Leo Messi in last year’s semifinals . The little Maestro put in one of his best performances to date to ensure a 3 – 0 win for Barcelona, that included a single run which saw him put Jerome Boateng on the ground with a wonderful dummy, before doing what was once considered impossible, and chipping the ball over Manuel Neuer from an almost impossible angle. Here’s the goal, in case anyone forgot how magical it was:
Barcelona sit top of group C with two wins out of two, 2 points ahead of Man City, and Guardiola must ensure he sets his side up tactically perfectly to avoid another debacle like the one from last season.
The Spanish champions head into the game against Man City two points off the top of the La Liga table, fresh off of a 4 – 0 win against Deportivo La Coruna that saw Lionel Messi score on his return from injury. Despite the excellent 4 – 0 win on the weekend, and the 7 – 0 destruction of Celtic in the Champions League earlier this season, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Luis Enrique’s men.
Two shock defeats against Celta Vigo and newly promoted Alaves (at the Camp Nou), and the resurgence of Sevilla FC under Jorge Sampaoli, mean Barcelona will have to fight harder than in most recent reasons if they want to retain their La Liga crown.
With their transfer ban ending in June, Barca also finally strengthened in key areas over the summer. Samuel Umtiti, Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Lucas Digne, and Denis Suarez were all signed (Jasper Cillessen was added in the final days of the window to replace the departing Claudio Bravo), and with the loanees returning from their respective clubs, Luis Enrique finally has a squad with enough depth to cope with serious injuries at any position.
Up front, the MSN have enjoyed an incredible calendar year together, and have already scored a combined 15 goals in 8 games (Neymar and Messi with 6 games each) this season, a tally that will only exponentially increase as the year goes on. Given City’s recent injury worries at the back, and a hint of instability around Claudio Bravo anytime the ball comes in from a set piece, the famed front three will be relishing the opportunity to play against their former teammate in goal, and possibly torment him again as they used to in training.
On the injury front, the Catalans will be without Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto, and Jasper Cillessen. On the weekend, the manager experimented with a back three of Pique, Mascherano, and Mathieu, with Digne and Turan either side of a three man midfield. While this was a highly effective attacking setup in the absence of Alba, the Barca players aren’t used to playing a back three, and Enrique will probably shift back to a 4-man defence when his side host the side from Manchester.
This is how Barcelona are expected to line up:
Marc-Andre ter Stegen;
Lucas Digne, Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Jeremy Mathieu;
Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta;
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar Jr.
The Pep Guardiola effect is in full swing over at the Etihad stadium, as the Citizens sit atop the English Premier League table, with six wins and a draw in their opening eight games. It’s not just the results that have impressed, but the manner in which they’ve been achieved. Man City have been a side regularly challenging for the trophy ever since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover, but they’ve never quite looked convincing enough to mount a challenge on all fronts.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side, too, played some excellent football when they were in the mood, but there was a distinct lack of any sort of urgency in the side, and they tried to coast through most games. The times they were caught out, that team found it very hard to make their way back into the match. This very complacency was Pellegrini’s biggest downfall and, exactly what Pep has tried to fix in his first season in charge of the Sky Blues.
The former Barcelona captain has gained famed for getting the most out of his sides tactically and aesthetically, but most people don’t realize just how much work goes on in the background to achieve those results. Read up on the many things his peers and pupils have said about him from his times at Barca and Bayern, and you’ll come across a recurring theme. They all start off by exclaiming their surprise at just how intense the training sessions are under Guardiola.
That intensity on and off the pitch is what has helped this Manchester City side gel so quickly, despite the numerous new arrivals and departures, and exactly what is going to help the club achieve the superclub status they so desperately crave. It’s also what has helped Pep develop and deliver such a plethora of tactical variations over the years — His Bayern side once used three different formations in a single game!
The club have had a mixed Champions league season so far, with an emphatic 4 – 0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach followed by a surprise 3 – 3 draw against Celtic. City also go into the fixture against Barca coming off of a 1 – 1 draw against Everton, where they characteristically dominated possession, but couldn’t finish the game off and eventually got punished on the counter.
Against Barcelona, especially at the Camp Nou, the Sky Blues will have to be at their physical and mental best, if they hope to get any sort of result.
Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, and Fabian Delph are all out injured, and will be unavailable for this match. Manager Pep Guardiola has a few decisions to make, tactically, about how he wants his side to line up. Vincent Kompany’s return from injury means we might finally get to see the centre back pairing of Kompany and Stones. In midfield, Pep has to pick three out of Fernandinho, Gundogan, Silva, and de Bruyne, which is by no means an easy task.
This is how Manchester City are expected to line up:
Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, John Stones, Aleksandar Kolarov;
Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, David Silva;
Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Nolito.
*Team news as at time of writing.
FC Barcelona 3 – 1 Manchester City
Man City have improved drastically under Guardiola already, but still aren’t anywhere near the finished product they need to be to challenge a side as settled and as prolific as this current Barcelona team.
Both sides are missing key men in the fullback positions, and while Raheem Sterling and de Bruyne will look to take on Mathieu at every opportunity, it is Sagna’s absence that will the most felt on the pitch. Zabaleta no longer has the legs to keep up with someone like Neymar, and will need a lot of help from Sterling ahead of him to keep the Brazilian quiet.
It’ll also be interesting to see how City deal with Leo Messi roaming on the pitch. Fernandinho is more than capable of tracking the little maestro when he comes in midfield, but stopping him doing his thing is an entirely different prospect, especially with the highline Pep likes his teams to play. Messi will be looking to get on the ball at every opportunity to play those trademark crossfield passes to Neymar, in behind the City defence.
Ever since Luis Suarez caught the world’s eye with his performances at Liverpool, there’s long been a debate about who’s better, Suarez, or Sergio Aguero. In his time at Barcelona, the Uruguayan has scored an astonishing 93 goals in 107 games, and while many would agree that Suarez is now a better team player, it’s Aguero individual ability with the ball that sparks the argument. The Argentine never really seems to stay fit long enough for there to be a definitive answer to the question, but one thing is clear: We’re in for an absolute treat when the pair meet at the Camp Nou, and then later at the Etihad the following gameweek.