Friday 9 December 2016

The night Guardiola's men sent out first Euro warning

Home support finally awakened on famous night, writes Ian Herbert

Ian Herbert

Published 02/11/2016 | 02:30

Pep Guardiola issues instructions during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City and FC Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola issues instructions during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City and FC Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

There was not a flicker of emotion from Pep Guardiola when the decisive goal which can allow Manchester City to revise their perspective on European football flew in, despatched from a free-kick Kevin De Bruyne dipped over the Barcelona wall. But appearances and Guardiola can be deceptive. He will have felt the vast significance.

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This was the win which broke the hex that these opponents have held over this club in these past few years, secured at the sixth time of asking. It was the win rich in irony and symmetry, given that City's Spanish chief executive and director of football have been creating a corner of Catalonia in Manchester since they arrived.

But more than that it was result which will allow City to put the struggles and stumbles which this competition has represented right in the past. The Champions League has certainly brought them pecuniary wealth - £88.8m last year, as semi-finalists: more even than winner Real Madrid, UEFA data revealed on Tuesday.

Deficit

But there has been a spiritual deficit. The atmosphere has been dead, the mood malign with the supporters' boos for UEFA. A full 20 minutes of last night's game had passed and City fans were still arriving to take their seats.

That moribund spirit was swept away in what happened next. For a time, it was the City that this stadium has been programmed to know - defensively vulnerable, centrally wide open, as Barcelona began to carve them open.

But then came the 'willingness' which on Monday Guardiola had said several times was necessary: the resolve to chase, harry and induce mistakes. The pressing to death of Barcelona, in the way that they have strangled so many teams. By the mid-point of the second half, Guardiola was making clear his fury with Pablo Zabaleta for playing a 20-yard back pass to his goalkeeper. Forward was the only direction he was prepared to let this side look.

To understand the import of the win, it is necessary to go back to the start of the night because for a half hour or so Guardiola looked like yesterday's man.

In Barcelona, they even had a word for the way he used to change things. 'Guardiolada' was a tactical innovation used for a big game and for the purposes of that match alone. The general impression provided by the first period was that Luis Enrique was the innovator now; that his is the side which is moving on, leaving Guardiola struggling to harmonise with the same tune.

"With Luis [Suarez] maybe now we are a bit more aggressive when we attack at speed, whilst with Pep we used counter-attacks less," Lionel Messi said earlier this week. His goal was a metaphor for that: a counter-attack, which Messi began by blocked a shot in his own penalty area and ran the length of the pitch to take back from Neymar and score. But City were not ready to drop into another abyss and Guardiola's demands are the reason for that. Aguero has been reduced to life on the edge here, recalled but knowing his place is no longer a God-given right. He had a point to prove and made it, having a say in all three goals, if the pass which drew the foul and decisive free-kick is included.

Guardiola may feel the Argentine has more to offer. He has said he wants Aguero to be a greater presence in the box, raining shots on goal, and here he was principally provider, operating deep. In the second half, though, Enrique's players could not come close to him. By the end they were rocked back on their heels, trying to stem the attacking movements to which Raheem Sterling and De Bruyne added.

Guardiola's handshake for Enrique was brief and business-like and City do still have work to do to qualify from Group C, with a trip to Borussia Monchengladbach to come. But this was the night when they finally stood up and told Europe they are coming. (© Independent News Service)

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