People laughed at the idea that Manchester City played well in their first game against Barcelona two weeks ago. But they lost 4-0, it was pointed out. They ended up with 10 men. They handed Lionel Messi his latest Champions League hat-trick on a plate. All true, yet City did play well in the Camp Nou, between their various defensive mishaps they showed a willingness to get at Barcelona and make chances. If that was a sign of a new tenacity under Pep Guardiola it came to full fruition when Messi and his team were vanquished at the Etihad.
Perhaps vanquished is an over-dramatic word for a 3-1 victory that could have been narrower – although with better finishing City could easily have hit four or five – but when you have played the same opponents six times in the past three years and lost the first five the eventual breakthrough victory is bound to be cathartic.
Was it a breakthrough? Guardiola thought not, suggesting his side played better in the first half-hour in Catalonia. Yet if the first 38 minutes at the Etihad saw Barcelona performing like the best team in the world, as Guardiola claimed, City’s achievement in facing down the challenge, keeping their shape and their belief – as well as 11 men on the pitch – to come back from a goal down was all the more impressive.
City did not do that at the Camp Nou, largely because Claudio Bravo changed the numerical equation before they had a proper chance to hit back from Messi’s opening goal. Yet they might have done. They seemed to have it in them to try and that same steeliness resurfaced at the Etihad when, with all their players on the pitch, they were in a position to do something about going behind.
To look at the scorelines – 4-0 to Barcelona in the first game, 3-1 to City in the second – one might form the impression that the two contests were quite different, with home sides well on top in each case. That is slightly misleading. Both contests were surprisingly similar, at least they were when both sides were playing with 11 men. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to suggest City matched Barcelona in both games – they were clearly fighting an uphill battle against a superior side in the first match, but in each case they had a plan and they gave it a go. Rather than being despondent at the manner and scale of the Camp Nou defeat, Guardiola stressed the positives and promised better in the return, calling for a perfect display in what he billed to be a final.
City’s performance was not quite perfect on the night, as Guardiola mentioned they still have a lot of catching up to do in certain aspects of European football, but they made sure it was closer to perfection than Barcelona’s. Like a boxing referee, Luis Enrique judged the bout 50-40 to the home side. Meaning 40 minutes of Barcelona dominance topped by 50 minutes of City dominance.
One might quibble about the exact timings, but when you have a Barcelona manager admitting that his side did not have as much possession as they would have liked because of the pressure from the opponents, it is a clear sign that City are now doing something right in a way that they, and plenty others, have not been able to manage before. City did not so much press differently, as Guardiola had suggested they might, but they pressed better.
Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne have never worked harder, or as impressively, together. Agüero showed there is more to his game than just goals, perhaps making the improvement Guardiola was looking for when he suggested a few weeks ago he wanted more from his main striker. Ilkay Gündogan came up with the goals from midfield that are going to be necessary if City are not going to channel all their scoring potential through Agüero and, like Raheem Sterling, he made good use of the ball whenever it came to him.
There will be those who maintain City were not playing a full-strength Barcelona, pointing to the absence of Andrés Iniesta in midfield and Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba in defence, and it cannot be denied that the calming influence of Iniesta was missed.
Yet there did not seem much wrong with Barcelona for the first half hour.
The way they exploited the home side’s over-commitment to attack for the first goal was typically explosive and it cannot be stressed enough that at that point most observers were reaching for the usual superlatives and imagining headlines along the lines of “More Messi mastery” or “More City misery”.
To turn that situation completely around in under an hour takes some doing against any Barcelona side and City did it. Qualification is not yet secure, but if you can come from behind to beat Barcelona when you really have to it ought to put the Group C challenges that remain into a subtly different perspective, both from City’s point of view and that of their opponents.
Quite evidently, City have never had a better night in Europe. Their Champions League experience is short, the learning process is long, but Guardiola’s players made a giant stride forward against Barcelona.
Think of how long it took Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United to really come to grips with the Champions League. The first six years were a series of disappointments until in 1999 United proved themselves with successive wins in Italy in the knockout stage, first by protecting a first-leg lead against Internazionale at San Siro, then more famously by coming from behind to beat Juventus in Turin.
This is not to suggest City are on the verge of a winning the Champions League, much less pulling off a treble – the point is that at the time the Italian teams were the most feared in Europe. Juventus were the Barcelona of their era, Ferguson once confessed that United would feel intimidated as the teams lined up in the tunnel and beating the strongest in Europe can hardly be bettered as a sign of progress.
City are on their way. Perhaps knockout stage games are a truer test of real strength and merit, but beating Barcelona for the first time in your history is the sort of landmark that cannot do a club on the rise any harm.
The next task for City is to keep their feet on the ground and give Middlesbrough their full attention in the league on Saturday. Boro claimed a draw at Arsenal at the end of a week when their hosts were in Champions League action and City allowed Southampton to escape with a Premier League point following their own 4-0 defeat in Barcelona.
It must be incredibly difficult to keep up Champions League-levels of effort and concentration for what is ostensibly a more mundane fixture, but the biggest and best teams have to find a way.
The Guardian Sport