Sport Soccer

Thursday 23 November 2017

Barcelona are past their best -- Pellegrini

Manchester City football director Txiki Begiristain, left, shakes hands with former FC Barcelona vice-president and grandfather to Gerard Pique, Amador Bernabeu, at the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League
Manchester City football director Txiki Begiristain, left, shakes hands with former FC Barcelona vice-president and grandfather to Gerard Pique, Amador Bernabeu, at the draw for the last 16 of the Champions League

Mark Ogden

Manuel Pellegrini has claimed that Manchester City's Champions League round of 16 opponents Barcelona are two years past their best.

Having finished as runners-up to Bayern Munich in Group D -- following the City manager's admission that he did not realise one more goal in their 3-2 win against the European champions last week would have secured top spot -- City must now overcome the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar to progress to the quarter-finals.

While neighbours Manchester United have been handed a far less hazardous route to the last eight, having been paired with Greek champions Olympiakos, Pellegrini concedes that City face a difficult task when they meet Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium on February 18 before the second leg at the Nou Camp on March 12.

However, the former Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga coach insists that a combination of ageing players and managerial upheaval has taken away Barcelona's air of invincibility.

"I think it is a beautiful game with two very good teams," Pellegrini said. "But Barcelona is not the team it was two years ago, so we will see how they arrive in February.

"I don't know exactly what happened inside Barcelona, but they changed three managers in the last three years and maybe the performance of the players is not the same.

OLDER

"Maybe the players are older, but there are a lot of reasons why teams change their performance.

"They continue to be a very good team. Two years ago, however, they were more unbeatable than today. It's not impossible, but difficult.

"Last year, Messi played against Bayern Munich and they lost that tie. But if you want to win something important, you must always beat important teams."

Before the draw yesterday at Uefa headquarters in Nyon, the Spanish media had cited City as the team that all of the seeded clubs were determined to avoid, with the headline 'El City, No!' on the front page of the Barcelona-based sports newspaper 'El Mundo Deportivo'.

Barcelona's worst fears were confirmed with the draw and coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino admitted that his team would face a serious rival in the new year.

"City are a team that score goals very easily," Martino said. "Perhaps they too had wanted to play against Barcelona. They are a major rival, with very good players."

Pellegrini, who confirmed that Sergio Aguero faces "at least a month" on the sidelines with the calf injury sustained during Saturday's 6-3 victory over Arsenal, echoed Martino's claims that Barcelona would not underestimate City by insisting his team's recent form warrants respect from Europe's elite.

"I think they will be very concerned also (about facing City) and not only because we beat Bayern Munich," Pellegrini said. "They know Manchester City is a strong team and it will be difficult for them."

Off the pitch, the match with Barcelona could reawaken the hostility between leading figures of both clubs, with City chief executive Ferran Soriano embroiled in allegations of a spying campaign during his time at the Nou Camp under the previous regime.

Txiki Begiristain, City's director of football, held a similar position at Barcelona and he insisted that the tie would not intimidate Pellegrini's players.

"I think it will be a great match. Ours is a team with a lot of confidence, especially after winning against the champions in Munich," he said.

"We have to be confident because of the way we are playing. We are showing that we can score in all matches. This is important in the Champions League.

"Our manager knows Barcelona perfectly because he managed in Spain for a long time. In this sense, we are confident.

"I think the text messages will be flying between Manchester and Barcelona now between Sergio (Aguero) and Lionel (Messi)."

By contrast to City's eye-catching tie with Barcelona, United will expect to progress to the quarter-finals after being drawn to face Olympiakos.

Having qualified as runners-up to Paris Saint-Germain in Group C, Olympiakos lead the Greek Superleague by eight points with 14 victories and one draw from their 15 league games this season.

David Moyes' team will play the first leg in Athens on February 25 before hosting the return at Old Trafford on March 19.

United, who could come up against their former goalkeeper Roy Carroll during the two-legged tie, have won all four of their previous encounters with Olympiakos -- the most recent being a 3-2 victory in Greece in October 2002.

Dates for last-16 fixtures

February 18 and March 12

Bayer Leverkusen v PSG

Manchester City v Barcelona

February 19 and March 11

Arsenal v Bayern Munich

Milan v Atletico Madrid

February 25 and March 19

Zenit v Borussia Dortmund

Olympiakos v Man United

February 26 and March 18

Schalke v Real Madrid

Galatasaray v Chelsea

 

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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