Saturday 21 April 2018

City a long way off Barca's £450m strike force

Paul Hayward

However fancy the Manchester City set-up, however grand their aims, the stomach is bound to churn at the sight of a £450million attacking prong in shirts as luminous as their talents. All teams enter the Casino de Barcelona when Lionel Messi and company come to town.

Luis Suarez is the third biggest name in the Barcelona forward trio but was the first on to the scoresheet here with an obligatory goal against Joe Hart. Where have we seen that before? In Sao Paulo, where he returned from a month out with a knee injury to expel England from the Brazil World Cup.

To extend that symmetry, Suarez put a second one beyond the England 'keeper on 29 minutes after Messi had flashed across the Manchester City penalty area and guided the ball to Jordi Alba to cross.

City 0 Suarez 2, with less than half an hour gone. And this after three errors from the Premier League's best player in 2013-14 had raised doubts about his touch and form. Even Suarez looked exasperated. But help was at hand, from Vincent Kompany, who made a mess of a Messi chip into the box, which then fell to Suarez to slam past Hart.

With Sergio Aguero fit in City colours, and David Silva present, this was surely the most star-studded game to be played on this turf. But there was no mistaking the imbalance in Barcelona's favour. Their front line is almost gaudy - or Gaudi - and would have no place for Edin Dzeko, who started alongside Aguero in a high-risk City formation.

The key to the game, every pundit said, was whether City deploying two strikers would concede midfield superiority to Luis Enrique's team. With Messi dropping deep to shape the attacks, we soon had our answer, as Fernando and James Milner laboured to stop Barcelona's greased moves through the middle. On City's right, Alba was a constant menace. You could see the Premier League team's bafflement at having to deal with so many surges that flashed into being without warning.

The Barcelona trident have been responsible for 68 goals this season: 37 of them from Messi, who struck his 23rd Liga hat-trick, matching Cristiano Ronaldo's record, in the 5-0 win against Levante 10 days ago. Messi had scored 14 times in 2015 alone. Whatever the truth about friction between him and the manager (the little megastar was rested against Real Sociedad, against his wishes), or a casino trip the night before the flight to Manchester, Messi asserted his ball-carrying brilliance without difficulty here.

As Liverpool found when Ronaldo visited Anfield, the greatest players can make fine players look feeble, good teams seem grey. You could see Messi fancying the way City were set up. It offered him avenues to run down, runs to pick out, bursts of magic to inflict. And none of us can know how it feels to play in a forward line where there are two other world-class players to complete the job if it happens to be beyond you.

There they were: numbers nine, 10 and 11, all in fluorescent shirts. The high-rollers. At a conservative estimate it would cost £450 million to buy all three: Messi, Neymar and Suarez, who should have known he would be third, at best, on the Barcelona VIP list. Fourth if you count Andres Iniesta. Or Xavi, or Gerard Pique. The best card he holds, though, is that he is a natural centre-forward, unlike Messi or Neymar, and can go bump for bump with the likes of Kompany and Martin Demichelis.

Below boardroom level, where they raided the Camp Nou brains trust, the closest City can get to this level of destructive creativity are Silva, Aguero and arguably Samir Nasri. But to see Milner and Fernando as the two central midfielders in a game of this difficulty is the best indication of the continuing gap between two sides.

With such a deficit, it takes great tactical management or inspirational leadership to nullify superior individual talent. In nine seasons in Spain, Manuel Pellegrini managed only four wins against Barcelona. His overall record was played 22, won four, drawn four, lost 14.

Malaga's shock win over Barca at the weekend (and those casino pics) may have encouraged Pellegrini to believe his guests would be vulnerable. Both events were more likely to heighten their concentration. Before the Malaga game, Barcelona had won their last 11 fixtures. Despite political tensions, they have kept the heat on Real Madrid.

City started the second half with more intent. Barcelona responded as they always do, with clock-burning possession, and spurts of activity. City went back to being a tough Premier League team, no longer bamboozled by Catalan artistry. On 67 minutes they unleashed Wilfried Bony, bought for £25 million because Dzeko and Stefan Jovetic had not supported Aguero well enough.

Contrast that emergency spending with the evolution of Barca's forward line. Best player in Argentina, best in Brazil, best in Uruguay. Three ultra-safe bets. At least Aguero is in that class. His top-corner drive on 69 minutes brought the game back to life.

An impressive counter-surge at 2-0 down displays skill and tenacity in chasing a lost cause. But City, who lost Gael Clichy to a second yellow card on 73 minutes, want to be at the exalted level where games are dominated, not chased. They are not there yet. Few are, against Suarez, Neymar and Messi. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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