City land the final blow in epic battle
Mnachester City 3 Barcelona 1
There have been many strategies formulated for beating Barcelona over the years and some of them have proved successful, but only a few could be judged quite so satisfying as Pep Guardiola's courageous decision to beat at its own game the football colossus he helped to create.
Those who seek to attack Barcelona on the counter, who commit players forward and generally try to do the things that Lionel Messi and his boys do so well? They tend to leave the stadium broken, to the sound of concerned applause. But this time Guardiola's players accepted the challenge and were simply better: too clinical, and, yes, too good for their opponents.
Five previous games against Barcelona, five defeats and now this, a victory for City who fell behind to a counter-attacking goal that one could only gasp in approval at when Messi finished a move he had begun deep in his own half. The response was two goals from Ilkay Gundogan, the second another counter-attacking masterpiece, and a free-kick from Kevin De Bruyne to compare with any other.
City have had good footballers since they first entered this competition but Guardiola has given them a framework to compete with the best and this felt like a benchmark in the Etihad Stadium's Champions League life. They are back into second place in the group and look strong bets to progress.
This was the premium content, the kind of football that you only see every so often but when it comes you realise how mediocre a lot of it can be.
There was no negativity from City, no sitting deep, or bypassing of the midfield. But there was some excellent attacking play. There was a willingness from both sides to take the ball in difficult positions and to make that kind of possession hard for one another. There were two great goals in the first half which showed that neither team tolerate an error.
City started well and they should have had a penalty when Raheem Sterling twisted past Samuel Umtiti and the young French defender trapped the winger's right boot under his left foot to bring him down. The experienced Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai made an uncharacteristic error, rushing up to Sterling and booking him for diving without giving himself time to think.
A bad call, as the replays demonstrated, and one that should not have been hard to get right. Guardiola addressed the fourth official behind a cupped hand, his anguish clear. How many chances does a team get to put Barcelona behind from the penalty spot and one of their centre-backs on a booking. Guardiola knows only too well that, even with hands up in protection and the blows raining in, Barcelona can knock you flat with one shot.
As a counter-attacking goal, Barca's move on 21 minutes was done in eight or nine seconds but it felt like everyone in the stadium knew what was coming.
It began with a City corner. Javier Mascherano blocked Aguero's shot and Messi, from just outside his own area, swept the ball to the left wing where Neymar had no one between him and Willy Caballero but was in his own half.
He took the ball down the wing and all it felt like he was waiting for was his No 10 to make up the ground to finish the job. When Neymar squared the ball, Messi ran on to it like a car reaching the junction just at the moment the light turns green. He gently squeezed the accelerator, took the ball in his stride and tucked it into the corner of the goal.
There could been another dozen City defenders in the box, but they would not have been able to do a thing about the moment that Messi picked his corridor to goal and Neymar rolled the ball into the centre of it. A goal up and for a while it felt like Barcelona could do anything.
They punished City for the next few minutes and there were times when all Guardiola's team could do was hang on for dear life. Andre Gomes, the elegant Portuguese midfielder, deposited Nicolas Otamendi on his backside with one change of direction. The Argentine recovered only to be given directions to the wrong place by a swivel of Neymar's hips.
But City never gave up, and they held out, with a shot from Gomes blocked by Aleksandar Kolarov and then a mistake from the young right back Sergi Roberto, one of only two Spaniards in the Barca XI, who passed the ball across his own penalty area. Barca do that a lot, successfully breaking one of football's old rules, but this ball was straight to Aguero, who played in Sterling and his ball to the back post was slotted in by Gundogan.
A great moment for City and they almost had another when Fernandinho won an epic tackle with Roberto and, via David Silva, had a shot just wide of the post. Fernandinho would come off later in the second half with what looked like an injury but once again he was outstanding, never more so than when expertly wrapping a foot around the ball as Messi teased it into the area.
He also started the move that finished with Sterling's heavy touch two minutes after the break when Aguero played him in on goal. But no matter because the equaliser was near perfect.
A foul by Sergio Busquets on Silva and then a free-kick from De Bruyne that seemed destined to be aimed at Marc ter Stegen's top right corner. So much so that the goalkeeper took half a step in the direction before De Bruyne arced a right foot shot into the other side of the goal and over the goalkeeper.
It would be hard to list all the chances that followed in the second half, safe to say that before Gundogan scored the third for City this was a game of rapid turnover of possession. Counter-attack on counter-attack until it was hard to recall who started it. Gomes hit the bar when a City press led by John Stones inadvertently put Luis Suarez in on goal and he squared for the midfielder.
Then, City's third. It began with Suarez winning the ball bravely in his own penalty area and went from left to right ending with Silva's cross which came back out to the feet of Gundogan to score. They never looked back. (© Daily Telegraph, London)