The thought seemed to come to Pep Guardiola almost in passing, or it was one he felt uncomfortable dwelling upon when preparing for his latest reunion with the club where he forged his reputation.
“In the first half we played well at Camp Nou,” said the Manchester City manager before Barcelona’s visit to the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday, less than two weeks on from a chastening 4-0 reverse in Catalonia.
“But, obviously, the two wide players for Barcelona are almost unstoppable.”
After 21 minutes on a crisp Champions League evening in Manchester, Neymar and Lionel Messi gave a demonstration of just how unstoppable they can be. Guardiola probably did not expect it to come from one of his own team’s corners.
Sergio Aguero had a shot blocked and his compatriot Messi collected the loose ball with barely concealed menace. A raking pass found Neymar wide left on the halfway line and the Brazilian started to bear fiercely down on the City goal.
Messi now showed a beautiful economy to his work. As blue shirts darted around in numbers and panic he hung back, observing the whole picture like the middle-distance runner at the back of the pack who knows he has everyone’s number.
Inevitably, his run was perfectly timed into a pocket of space to take the pass and slot unerringly into Willy Caballero’s bottom corner, completing an impressively long-range one-two.
It was classic Neymar, classic Messi, but new Barcelona all at once.
The continued absence of Andres Iniesta with a knee injury meant this was the latest demonstration of a transition Luis Enrique has managed but not accelerated throughout his reign as head coach.
If Messi will forever be the symbol, Iniesta and the now departed Xavi were the fulcrum and foundation of the great team and golden era that came to fruition under Guardiola’s leadership.
Pre-match, Ivan Rakitic – who has filled Xavi’s midfield shoes in an unfathomably seamless manner over the past two seasons – spoke of how playing without Iniesta means “a lot changes” for Barcelona.
Here, it meant the Croatian often being stationed deep alongside Sergio Busquets and the front three strung high and wide to occupy the City defence.
Steeled for a war of passing and pressing attrition in midfield, Fernandinho, Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva were left with little to swing at. Barcelona looked most dangerous, not in those pockets between the defensive lines around a crowded penalty area, but on the halfway line with their tremendous trio ready to spring into mayhem.
In the 37th minute, old Barcelona came to the party. “Ole” rung out from the travelling supporters as pass after pass was strung together. City appeared demoralised, feeling the weight of those five defeats from five against this super club. Two minutes and a Sergi Roberto mistake later, Gundogan equalised.
“I’ve never entered into a football match thinking we can’t win and I will never start to think in that way,” said a bullish Guardiola beforehand.
When Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling coolly combined to set up Gundogan, his players suddenly shared that belief – one that flowered into the Kevin De Bruyne-inspired onslaught Barcelona’s makeshift defence buckled underneath during the second-half.
Perhaps Iniesta, in his advancing years, would have also been swept away by the effervescent De Bruyne, who slammed home a superb free-kick to snatch a Champions League moment equal to his slaying of Paris Saint-Germain last season.
But, without the genial 32-year-old, Barca no longer had the in-built safety mechanism that has so demoralised their opponents for the best part of a decade.
City have been pressed and passed into oblivion and red cards by Barca more than most, but where there should have been a suffocating reassertion of power here there was a rotating and ineffective cast.
Off came Rakitic for Arda Turan, on came Rafinha for Andre Gomes – the latter having rattled the crossbar with a gilt-edged chance before Gundogan’s fourth goal this week made the points safe.
While Iniesta and Xavi once practiced virtual telepathy on the field, this quartet look like they are still in the early stages of introducing themselves to one another.
Iniesta will also miss the weekend match against Sevilla, placed fourth and breathing down their necks in LaLiga. The lack of his controlling presence has brought unevenness to some of Barcelona’s work this season and it was here again in Manchester, where Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were unable to bail them out upon crumbling foundations.
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