Tuesday 20 March 2018

Buoyant City shake off their European inferiority complex

Manchester City celebrate their 3-1 win over Barcelona on Tuesday night. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire
Manchester City celebrate their 3-1 win over Barcelona on Tuesday night. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Wire

Ian Herbert

The Spanish contingent putting the questions to Barcelona manager Luis Enrique at his press conference late on Tuesday night were struggling to comprehend what had happened to the team they referred to as 'we.'

'Was it because Gerard Pique was missing?' 'Were we over-confident after taking a lead?' Enrique, who has something of the Pep Guardiola about him, described things as he saw them and would not take refuge in such excuses.

"If you lose, it's not because of the players who are not there," he said, with mounting exasperation. "I've not got an explanation. This is the game where facts change things. Sometimes there are (two teams operating at) different levels. Sometimes it's not tactical. I could tell you something different but that's not my way…"

It would have been worth Guardiola having some of his players in the packed press room to hear this external assessment of their performance, because where Europe is concerned there is that perennial sense that they and their supporters don't really believe it themselves.

Manchester City broke a cycle of inferiority with a signature performance on Tuesday night, steeling themselves against the setback of Lionel Messi's opening goal to end the evening running one of the world's best sides asunder from every point across their retreating backline.

It was a demonstration that City can think of themselves as a side in the bracket of Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Read more: The night Guardiola's men sent out first Euro warning

The game did have a 'tactical' component actually, and a very dynamic one, demonstrating the capacity of both managers to make significant in-game changes; a factor often overlooked in English football's obsession with whom a club might sign and play from the start.

Enrique flipped his centre-backs Javier Mascherano and Samuel Umtiti from their natural positions so they could hit long diagonal passes to deter the press they expected from City down the flanks. Mascherano completed three times more long passes than any other player on the field.

That put City in "real trouble," Guardiola admitted. Sergio Aguero drifted into the wide channels, deterring the Barca full-backs from advancing.

Guardiola varied the pressing: starting with less of it than Enrique had expected, but in the second half ratcheting it up and operating with an extremely high defensive line, as he sought a way back into the game.

"They haven't pressed as much as we thought they would and that meant we could dominate in the first half but the second is a different story," Enrique reflected.

The long-ball counter-attack - not at all the typical Guardiola - was used to seek out the higher line of midfielders and Sergio Aguero, with Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov releasing most of the passes from deep. With City 3-1 up, City then assumed a "low-block", dropping deeper, the City manager said after the victory.

Among some supporters there is a spiritual deficit, though. The boos for the UEFA anthem persisted on Tuesday night, despite Guardiola's bold entreaty of fans that they move on from their feud and "forget what happened in the past," as he put it back in September.

Fans were still taking up their seats 20 minutes into the game.

The size of the queue for match day tickets just before kick-off suggested that some might be struggling to get in before half-time. It is time for these people to catch the spirit, think big, look at this and say, 'We are a bright young team managed by one of the brightest individuals in football management and we could win the Champions League.'

As Luis Enrique will tell them, all of the above are true. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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