Another Messi night for City as Euro dream ends
Barcelona 2 Manchester City 1
Manchester City bowed out of the Champions League with their pride, if not their defence intact, following a valiant display against a team of so many talents so prematurely written off.
There is no shame in losing to opponents such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves, but what will frustrate City is that they handicapped themselves by not buying a high-class centre-half last summer.
Martin Demichelis erred in the first leg, Joleon Lescott badly in the second leg. If only Vincent Kompany had some proper company. Lescott was caught out as Messi struck his 67th Champions League goal, breaking Raul's scoring record for one club in Europe's elite competition.
After Pablo Zabaleta departed for a second yellow card, the 10 men of City refused to surrender. Kompany equalised, due reward for his excellence, but the outstanding Joe Hart was beaten again by Alves.
For all the talk of crisis in Catalonia, Barcelona had still started with Neymar, Messi and Iniesta passing, moving and threatening in attack, with Xavi and Cesc Fabregas creating in midfield and with Alves and Jordi Alba attacking down the flanks. Not bad.
Barcelona had started so strongly, so fluidly, that City were swiftly being panicked into fouls to keep them at bay, seven in the first 10 minutes.
Lescott could have been cautioned for one foul on Messi and could easily have conceded a penalty for bringing down Barcelona's wondrous No 10.
City were pinned back, chasing striped shadows.
Time and again, Barcelona skills were paraded, advanced technique applied to whisk the ball around stunned visitors. Fabregas dribbled around Fernandinho. Messi sped into the box, past Hart but Kompany cleared the danger.
After 19 minutes, Alba was wrongly ruled offside when breaking into the box and crossing for Neymar to turn the ball into the net. Reports of Barcelona's demise were clearly exaggerated.
After three losses in their last six games in La Liga, Barcelona had endured a torrent of criticism, prompting Javier Mascherano to chastise observers with the words "wait for us to be dying before killing us off."
Having spoken so powerfully in support of the team and the coach Gerardo Martino, Mascherano had to back up his words with deeds. Stationed alongside Gerard Pique, Mascherano was immediately confronted with Sergio Aguero, who never looked completely right and departed with a hamstring problem at the break.
City had a couple of chances in what was a compelling first 45 minutes, but lacked the killer finish. Only when Edin Dzeko replaced Aguero did they really begin to alarm Mascherano and Pique. Pellegrini had started David Silva in the hole with Samir Nasri on the right and James Milner a surprise inclusion on the left, partly to protect Aleksandar Kolarov from Alves.
City fans took comfort and hope from recent history: Milner had been outstanding as City won 3-2 at Bayern Munich last October and City were in the same all-white kit as in the Allianz.
Serving the first game of his two-match touchline ban, Pellegrini was in the directors' box, sitting between Txiki Begiristain and Brian Marwood, leaning forward, focusing intently on his team's occasional counter-attacks.
After 17 minutes, Lescott picked out Nasri, the ball flowing via Silva and Kolarov to Milner, whose shot flew wide. It was a moment of hope, a moment rapturously received by the 5,000 City fans.
Up in the gods, they looked down on the match-stick men flitting about on one of the most beautiful stretches of green in Europe. They saw City resort to fouls to keep Barcelona at bay: Fernandinho on Busquets, Kolarov on Neymar, and then Pablo Zabaleta on Iniesta, all bringing bookings.
It was like trying to trap fireflies for City's players. Messi ghosted past Kompany. The Nou Camp was outraged when City played on after Zabaleta poleaxed Iniesta, the move leading to a shot over by Silva as whistles pierced the air. There were moments of respite, a Milner step-over turning the tika-taka tables briefly on Alves and then a wonderful chance for Nasri. Yaya Toure dinked the ball into the box, Silva back-heeled to Nasri, whose shot was directed too close to Victor Valdes.
In those final 10 minutes of the half, Barcelona could have scored three times. Hart rescued his side brilliantly on the first two occasions, pushing away a low shot from Neymar after Kolarov's slip let the Brazilian in and then denying Xavi from close range. When Messi then caressed the ball in to Neymar, Hart advanced, chasing the Brazilian wide. Neymar made the space and curled the ball towards the net but Fernandinho headed off the line.
Dzeko's arrival immediately troubled Barcelona's defenders. His height and strength gave City more of a focus, more belief.
Yet Barcelona's ability to turn defence into attack in a blur kept City on alert. Messi cut in from the right, beating Lescott and then placing a low left-footed shot past Hart but onto the post.
Then came Dzeko, rising up to meet Kolarov's cross from the left, heading powerfully goalwards. The ball seemed on a straightforward journey into the net but then came Valdes, flinging himself to his right, stretching out a hand to push the ball away just before it entered the goal.
After 67 minutes, Messi made his mark. Fabregas played the ball through and Lescott got his legs tangled up, the ball bouncing through to Messi, who calmly flicked it past Hart. That was surely it. Tie over.
Both sides still went for it. Hart pushed away Xavi's strike. City then went two up front with Alvaro Negredo joining Dzeko, replacing Silva who received an ovation from the Barcelona fans, who see him linking with Xavi and Iniesta for the national side. Negredo's Real Madrid connections were never going to guarantee him a warm reception.
City never gave up the fight. Dzeko ran into the box and had his heels clipped by Pique, going down, appealing for a penalty. Stephane Lannoy waved play on, a decision that incensed Zabaleta in particular.
He appeared to touch the French referee, who responded with a second yellow card and Zabaleta may face further punishment from Uefa.
As the life drained from City's Champions League campaign for another year, Hart continued to perform wonders, saving from Fabregas, before City pulled a consolation at the death.
Dzeko headed down and Kompany, who was played onside by Sergi Roberto, turned the ball in. Barcelona simply regained their lead, Iniesta cutting the ball back to Alves. (© Daily Telegraph, London)