The winless streak may be over, but there is still plenty of worry at the Etihad, where Manchester City will be hard-pressed to find a result against a Barcelona team that can clinch a spot in the knockout round of the Champions League with a draw or victory Tuesday night in England.
Manchester City are in a somewhat precarious position in Group C with four points through three matches – one better than Borussia Monchengladbach – but they will at least be done playing the Catalan giants after this game. All the goodwill Pep Guardiola built in winning his first 10 matches in all competitions since his arrival ebbed somewhat with a six-match winless run that matched the longest of his managerial career.
But for one day at least, everything went back to plan Saturday when City thrashed West Bromwich Albion 4-0 at The Hawthorns as Sergio Aguero had a first-half brace before Ilkay Gundogan added two goals in the final 11 minutes to flatter the scoreline and remain joint-leaders with Arsenal atop the Premier League while trailing on goal difference.
“We need Sergio, we know how important he is to us,” City manager Pep Guardiola to the team’s official website. “He is part of the history of this club and will be forever but I would like to help him. He can still write the most brilliant pages in his career in this club.
“All of us we are there to help him and of course the first goal is really good and the second as well.”
Guardiola also noted the bigger takeaway of ending the six-match winless streak (0-3-3) that will give his team a proper state of mind to deal with the quality Barcelona will bring to England.
“After three draws and three defeats, we tried to win again and we have a little bit more than in the last games, in terms of being a group and being a team. After that, the quality of the players made a difference. We are so happy because we are still there and for our confidence it will be good.
Guardiola won’t have to deal with the media circus that comes with playing the team that nurtured him as both player and coach unlike his trip to Nou Camp a fortnight ago, but he will be forced into at least one key change since first-choice goalkeeper Claudio Bravo is suspended for this match after playing a ball with his hands outside the box in City’s heavy 4-0 defeat at Barca.
That puts Willy Caballero between the sticks for this match for his second Champions League start of the season. He yielded three of the four goals in the loss at Barcelona as Lionel Messi netted twice before a late add from Neymar, but his lone start was a 5-0 victory at Staeua Bucharest in a Champions League playoff qualifier.
Another decision that seems easier for Guardiola to make will be starting Aguero after the eyebrow-raising decision to leave him on the bench at Barcelona until the 80-minute mark, even with City down a man after the 53rd minute. The Argentina international ended a six-match scoreless drought with his brace at The Hawthorns and has 13 goals in as many matches in all competitions for City.
Putting Aguero into the starting XI at home should be a no-brainer considering Barcelona will also have a makeshift defence of sorts due to injuries that will sideline both Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba and the red card suspension Jeremy Mathieu will serve for this match. Additionally, midfield engine and talisman Andres Iniesta will likely miss the remainder of group play with a knee injury.
If there was one piece of good news for manager Luis Enrique, it was midfielder Arda Turan being cleared to play after suffering a foot injury in the Spanish Super Cup that kept him out of Barca’s 1-0 victory over lowly Granada on Saturday. The victory kept Barcelona in second, two points behind Real Madrid, in La Liga.
“In this kind of match you need a freshness that we lacked at times,” Enrique told La Pais. “We were caught offside several times and that is due to a lack of timing. We struggled more than ususal but we continued to strengthen the team’s plans.”
The Catalans have won four on the trot in all competitions and have already taken the maximum nine points through three Champions League play, which gives them the luxury of needing only one point to secure passage to the next round. A victory would seal the top spot in Group C if Monchengladbach fail to defeat Celtic.
Saturday’s win marked the first time Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez failed to score while being in the starting lineup together for the first time since their 1-1 draw versus Atletico Madrid on Sept. 21. The trio have combined for 28 of Barca’s 43 goals in all competitions.
Messi leads all group play scorers in Champions League with six goals, while Neymar (5) and Suarez (3) are the only players with more than two assists through the first three matchdays.
Barcelona have won all five matches between the teams, sweeping two-legged ties in the round of 16 in both 2013-14 and 2014-15. Messi had goals in each of the 2014 contests while Suarez had a brace in the first-leg victory at the Etihad in 2015.
Viktor Kassai will preside over an all-Hungarian officiating crew for this match.
Manchester City (4-2-3-1) – Caballero, Zabaleta, Stones, Kompany, Kolarov, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Sterling, Silva, Nolito, Aguero.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Ter Stegen, Roberto, Mascherano, Umtiti, Digne, Busquets, Rakitic, Turan, Messi, Suarez, Neymar.