They were ordinary, ill-disciplined and strangely subdued – not often are Barcelona pinned back into their own half, restricted to forlorn defending, struggling with the relentless ding-dong pressing of a Premier League club. But for much of the second half, a mesmerising Manchester City, starring the understated Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, outplayed, outclassed and out-pressed their opponents, in a glorious vindication for the besieged Pep Guardiola.
In the first half, Guardiola had been a paragon of frustration. His players’ laxity bewildered him. In a parallel universe, or at FC Barcelona for that matter, football theory and advanced strategy from the outer corners of Guardiola's brain would be converted into a surrealist football exhibition on the field. But as it was, Guardiola’s players persisted in a staunch and stoic non-application of their coaches’ many ideals.
That backfired rapidly. Twenty-one minutes, precisely. That was how long Manchester City’s fragile resolve and resistance lasted. Guardiola's "consignes", instructions, to his players had been about safety first, defensive discipline and strategic pressing. But, alas, in vain. In a strangely fragmented first half, Lionel Messi pierced the bubble of City’s aspirations with a lightning-quick counter, a standard movement that MSN (Messi-Suarez-Neymar) have perfected over the seasons.
The City faithful groaned. Their club were in crisis yet again – a mini-crisis within a match, wrapped up in a larger existential quandary about, both, the nature of Guardiola’s coaching and the immediate future of a petrodollar club under-performing, and not fulfilling the dreams of their far-flung bread masters. In the bowls of the Etihad Stadium, crisis mongers were whispering again - that "Fraudiola" was faltering again, refusing to alter his beatific vision of the game, rejecting the idea that football the Tony-Pulis-way – arguably without Rory Delap’s long throw – does exist.
For years Guardiola has bent the footballing cosmos to his will. First, he did it with Barcelona in Spain, then with Bayern Munich – although not on a continental scale – in Germany. He was never going to relent in the face of – at times trivial, at times justified – criticism. And certainly not on the night of another encounter with his first love, FC Barcelona. The Catalans inherited a ball-hogging fetish – one that has allowed Barcelona to consume the footballing universe – from the Spanish coach.
Gagging the Blaugrana Monster
Guardiola had to gag the frightening Blaugrana Monster that he conceived in 2009, with the marked difference that Barcelona have more verticality and directness in the Luis Enrique era. It is turbo-charged tiki-taka. He fought, the way he does, with a tactical tweak after the break. In earnest, Barcelona should have long won the game in the first stanza in spite of a City penalty appeal. For 38 minutes, until City’s equaliser, the Catalans had mastery, in the plenitude of the word, of the game. City were a bunch of colourblind hedgehogs in a sack desperately trying to evade a sledge hammer, embodied by MSN.
But the MSN sledge hammer remarkably failed to score a second goal. Ilker Gundogan’s equaliser, after a poor error from Sergio Roberto, galvanised the hosts. They were now genuine penalty box menacers. Kevin De Bruyne’s support act for Sergio Aguero after the interval, as Guardiola switched to a 4-4-2, was instrumental in City’s full-bodied renaissance. The Belgian scored City’s second goal with a free-kick. For all the chutzpah and hysteria surrounding Aguero, it is De Bruyne who is City’s undisputed marquee player. The Belgian was also the architect of Gundogan’s second strike, which sucked the life out of Barcelona.
Tasting footballing ecstasy
In truth, City’s pressing, firstly, with their 4-1-4-1 formation, forced Roberto into a mistake. Then, with the 4-4-2, it intimidated, rebuked, and ultimately forced the Blaugrana Monster to capitulate. In this particular Barcelona line-up, the absence, and by extent the technical excellence and experience, of Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba was brutally exposed. Not even Li-onel – as the English pronounce it – Messi could cover the cracks.
But ridiculing Messi and co did not cause an overdose of euphoria at City, if any at all. Guardiola was temperate in his analysis – City had the better XI vs XI at the Nou Camp than in the first 38 minutes at the Etihad Stadium, he insisted. De Bruyne was equally modest: Had this been the best match of his career? No. Had this been the highlight of his career? No. He just about refrained from giving his trademark blank stare as a reply.However, this was a definite taste of footballing ecstasy for City – a wonderland conceived in the space of less than a few months, by a genial and idiosyncratic Catalan coach. The win may kickstart City’s true flight.