Commentary

Man City one step closer to emulating Barcelona

When they can play exquisite football and make it look so effortless, winning all there is to be won, it is little wonder that Barcelona have become the template for others to try to follow.

At the Etihad Stadium, paying homage to Catalonia is a never-ending quest.

It started with the appointment of two former Barcelona executives and continued with efforts to emulate their famed La Masia academy, before the long-planned appointment this summer of Pep Guardiola, entrusted to try to build a fully-functioning replica of his finest creation.

Everybody knows what Barcelona's Achilles' heel is; it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to the one evident in Guardiola's emerging City team, a lack of steel and defensive nous.

Several hours before Tuesday's spellbinding Champions League contest - characterised not only by beguiling technical skill but by what was at times a reckless approach to playing out from the back - the two clubs' Under-19 teams played at the academy across the road, in the Uefa Youth League.

Barcelona swept into a 2-0 lead in the first half and, despite the odd scare, managed to play out the game with a display that had City officials purring about a "masterclass".

For a time, similar seemed to be happening in the main event, between the senior teams, but Guardiola and City somehow found a way to break Barcelona's rhythm and claim a famous victory.

Everybody knows what Barcelona's Achilles' heel is; it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to the one evident in Guardiola's emerging City team, a lack of steel and defensive nous.

By design, the modern Barcelona were built not on solid defensive foundations, as football convention has long dictated, but on belief, on a steadfast belief that their brilliance in possession, and in winning it back, will surpass any team.

It is arrogant, but that arrogance has tended to be well-founded over recent years - just not on Tuesday against a team with similar weaknesses in defence but a similarly incisive approach in attack.

Even in their best moments in recent years, both under Guardiola between 2008 and 2012 and at times under Luis Enrique, there was always a reasonable belief that Barcelona would be vulnerable if opponents could get at them.

The size of that "if" has often been outlandish, as Manchester United discovered to their cost in two Champions League finals, but there have been occasions when Barcelona have indeed been susceptible.

This, with Gerard Pique, Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba missing from their defence and the marvellous Andres Iniesta absent in midfield, was certainly one of them.

There were times in the first half when Barcelona looked imperious - helped by what looked like a brittle City defence.

City, though, stiffened their resolve, led by Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan in central midfield, and turned this contest on its head.

Barcelona dominated for the first 40 minutes, but by half-time the visiting journalists were expressing concerns about the quality of the reinforcements - Sergi Roberto, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Digne and Andre Gomes.

Barcelona's defending was sloppy all evening and, the longer the game went on, the more you could see the frustration among Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, who had sensed that this was not going to be their night.

It might well prove to be their season, both in the Champions League and in La Liga, since the creative talent in their ranks is without equal, but that vulnerability will always be there if - that big, big "if" - teams can get at them.

It is the same challenge that City face every week in the Premier League.

On Tuesday, in the rare position of underdogs, Guardiola's team hit the aristocrats where it hurts.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2016, with the headline 'Man City one step closer to emulating Barcelona'. Print Edition | Subscribe