City limits laid bare by Suarez's ruthless double
Manchester City1 Barcelona2
Luis Suarez delivered his best performance in a Barcelona shirt, shining back on English soil, demonstrating the finishing finesse that had brought individual honours at Liverpool last season.
Even with Sergio Aguero pulling a goal back in the second period, Suarez's first-half brace exposed flaws in Manchester City's defence and Manuel Pellegrini's tactics, taking Barcelona to within touching distance of the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Playing through the middle, the man with No 9 on his back was superb, leading Vincent Kompany a painful dance. Despite a missed penalty, Lionel Messi was similarly excellent and Barcelona would have won by even more but for Joe Hart's late penalty save from Messi.
"It was a very important save," Pellegrini admitted afterwards. "It gives us more chance to try and win in Barcelona... 3-1 is a very difficult score to try and erase.
"We played very badly until the first half finished. We couldn't put three passes together."
So many had come to watch Suarez, Messi and Barcelona put their many passes together, including England's Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Roy Hodgson, who all suffered at Suarez's hands at the World Cup in Sao Paulo.
It had to be Suarez opening the scoring, then adding the second. The script demanded it. It had to be the striker who left English shores as Footballer of the Year and Player of the Year, who went off to the World Cup and became a global pariah for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini, and was subsequently sold by Liverpool. It had to be Suarez returning and inflicting damage, reminding an English audience of his relentless, intelligent movement and ruthlessness.
Yet Suarez had scored only once before against City in six attempts while at Liverpool. Left unprotected by his bemused defence, Hart had little chance of stopping Suarez's first after 16 minutes.
City's defence had not looked confident before then, perhaps the nerves of Fernando in midfield infecting them. When Messi swept in a cross, the ball struck Kompany and bounced kindly for Suarez. His left foot did the rest, showing Hart no mercy. As he celebrated, there seemed an extra passion with which Suarez kissed his wrists tattooed with the names of his children.
City were shocked, rocked back on their heels, given a lesson in the art of possession. They had actually started promisingly. Pellegrini had picked an adventurous side, starting with Edin Dzeko alongside Aguero up front and the Bosnian was quickly involved, collecting a fine pass from James Milner.
Dzeko turned but found his route to goal blocked by Gerard Pique. Talk about false dawns. It briefly seemed a good call by Pellegrini, playing two up, yet it soon allowed space to open in midfield. Messi dropped deep and began to dictate the tempo with a pass wide here, a shimmy past Fernando there.
Pellegrini's decision to start Fernando ahead of Fernandinho swiftly came under unfavourable scrutiny. Barcelona owned midfield. James Milner was struggling to keep the visitors at bay in the centre. Pellegrini's 4-4-2 was being ripped apart.
There was a touch of the matador in the way Barcelona weakened poor old English John Bull; they kept passing and passing, draining the life from the hosts, before suddenly accelerating and going for the jugular. Messi was the brains and heartbeat of Barcelona. Kompany's claim that Stoke City could be "tougher" than Barcelona seemed even more bizarre.
A front-line of Neymar-Suarez-Messi was always going to offer more than Peter Crouch. Suarez's second goal almost arrived after 27 minutes when he received a sublime ball from Messi and tried to nutmeg Hart. Fortunately for City, their 'keeper managed to block.
Within three minutes, Suarez did have his second goal, following another elegant attack which saw Messi as a Barcelona architect to rival the great Gaudi. The No 10 swayed from the centre to the left, drifting past opponents, before releasing Jordi Alba. The full-back whipped the ball in low and hard, picking out the run of Suarez, who had ghosted ahead of Martin Demichelis to flick the ball past Hart.
It was not just Demichelis vanquished by Suarez's movement. Suarez versus Kompany had been one of the better duels of recent Premier League years. It looked one-sided here. Suarez's movement was so intelligent, so effective.
When Alba was breaking on to Messi's pass, Suarez momentarily delayed his run, deceiving Kompany, before sprinting in, meeting Alba's pass ahead of Demichelis.
The sound of "ole" emanating from the away quarter was replaced by radio commentators competing for the longest "goaaaal". There were sighs of frustration and respect from the City fans. This was a reprise of past anguish.
Missing the suspended Yaya Toure, City managed to stay faintly in touch before the break only through the reflexes of Hart, particularly with one save from Messi while the 'keeper was relieved when Dani Alves's shot hit the bar.
Pellegrini eschewed any changes at the break, but there was a shift in tempo and commitment. Their fans sang "We're Manchester City - we'll fight to the end" as their team attempted an unlikely rescue mission. From a David Silva corner, Kompany flicked the ball on but Dzeko aimed his header straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Gael Clichy was then booked for bringing down Ivan Rakitic, ruling him out of the Nou Camp return. Pellegrini has rarely demonstrated the art of changing major games with substitutions and he made a surprising move just after the hour, replacing Samir Nasri with Fernandinho. Nasri had done little but he was hardly alone in that.
After another piece of astonishing skill from Messi, who could control a snowflake in a storm, Pellegrini made another change, swapping the disappointing Dzeko for Wilfried Bony after 68 minutes. Within 60 seconds, City pulled one back, giving them hope in the tie. David Silva found Aguero with a terrific pass, the Argentinian thumped his shot past Ter Stegen.
Clichy then departed for a second yellow, fouling Rakitic, continuing a theme against Barcelona with City also losing Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta to red cards last season.
Clichy's stupidity ended any hope of a City recovery. Bacary Sagna came on for Silva, who was applauded from the field by the City fans. It could have been worse but Hart, again impressing, managed to stretch up and tip a Messi effort over.
Hart then did even better, superbly beating away Messi's penalty after the forward had been brought down by Zabaleta. As the Barcelona fans focused their phones on the scene, Messi headed the loose ball wide. He is human after all. A penny for the thoughts of Suarez, who wanted the chance of a hat-trick. (© Daily Telegraph, London)