Manchester City will look to turn their Uefa Champions League misfortune around when Barcelona come hunting for successive win at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Premier League champions are only making their second appearance in the knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition and will be looking to outwit 4-time winners, Barcelona, who have not lost a last-16 tie in the past seven seasons.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini is delighted having African Player of the Year, Yaya Toure, back from the Cup of Nations but the midfielder is serving the last match of a three-game ban, hence will not face his former club.
The English champions’ narrow escape mission in the group stages suggest that the 32-year-old Ivorian’s absence had proved inconsequential so far having missed the 3-2 home win over Bayern Munich and the 2-0 victory in Rome, as the last 16 second-timers scraped a runners-up berth in Group E last December.
But with a player like Lionel Messi expected to stick it out for an opening in the opponents’ defence, the Manchester hosts require the presence of a domineering player in the middle of the park that could truncate the Andres Iniesta- Messi boring line of network.
The news that James Milner is fit to play came as a boost for the Mancunians in the early hours of Monday after missing the 5-0 rout of Newcastle through a knee problem he picked up in training. However, the Brazilian duo of Fernando and Fernandinho need serve as human shield against Neymar and Luis Suarez advances.
“We can’t think about just stopping Messi,” Pellegrini said in his pre-game match briefing on Monday. “If we just stop him then they have a lot other good players. It is very important for us to fight for possession, not to lose easy balls. When they have the ball we must be very focused on Messi and their players.”
Suarez, on Uruguay duty, scored twice against Joe Hart in the group stages of the 2014 Fifa World Cup as England failed to advance into the round of 16. He however never managed to score at the Etihad Stadium on either visit during his time with Liverpool.
The battle between Neymar and Gael Clichy is another talking point, but if David Silva could replicate his form from the win over the Magpies; the Champions League first leg last-16 game could be discarded before the Baulgranas get to see the home team’s end.
Pellegrini believes Sergio Aguero is “back to his best” after an injury break in December. The Argentine striker ended a six-game scoring drought in the 4-1 win a Stoke City on 11 February- the Cityzens’ only win in the absence of Toure- and was also on target as they recorded their first clean sheet in 11 games in all competitions on Saturday.
Barcelona could get into real trouble if the Chilean boss decides to introduce the frontline pair of Wilfred Bony and Aguero.
Barca were hard donned by Juanmi’s seventh minute strike at the weekend as Malaga ended their 11-game winning run at the Camp Nou, despite dominating possession all through.
Coach Luis Enrique reckons a 2-0 away win will be difficult this term, especially with City parading a much-improved squad.
“We’ve got to make use of the space. If we can get hold of the ball then we can put our plan into action,” the Asturian said.
“I don’t know if there is a bigger gap than last year. Cities have won their domestic title and have improved their squad since then, as have we. We hope to win the trophy and if you want that, then you have to go through games like this.”
Barca are without Douglas and Vermaelen, both defenders out with hamstring injuries.
Man City: Hart; Zabaleta, Mangala, Kompany, Clichy; Fernandinho, Fernando, Nasri, Silva, Milner; Aguero.
Barca: Bravo; Alba, Mascherano, Pique, Alves; Iniesta, Basquets, Rakitic; Neymar, Messi, Suarez.