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Jack: Efficient Barcelona back to their best vs City

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Kristian Jack
2/18/2014 11:47:44 PM
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To not win a European Cup for two years is more than understandable for most teams in world football but not this current Barcelona.

They remain a long way away from winning it again, of course, but their performance in Manchester on Tuesday night was a sign of intent, a message they very much intended on delivering the moment their attention turned on the last 16 clash.

When they landed on English shores this week, there was a sense of a new dawn, the opening of a new window for this current crop of winners to accomplish something relatively new.

To many, it wasn't new at all. They did have eight of the 11 that started the triumphant 2011 final against Manchester United on the pitch from the start at Manchester City on Tuesday evening, but after they were massacred by Bayern Munich in last season's semifinal, a line had been drawn on the past and it was time to concentrate on the future.

All great teams need motivation to continually reach the top and this is it for Barcelona 2013-14.

"Maybe (City) do not fear us anymore, because in the last two years, we didn't win the Champions League," said defender Gerard Pique on Monday. "We can still be the best, but we have to show the world we can do it. Tomorrow is a great chance."

It was in England, at Wembley, in May of 2011 that they indeed cemented their place as one of the greatest club teams of all time. Pep Guardiola was hoisted in the sky by his players after securing their second European Cup in three years. It was a time for reflection but also of great excitement at what the team could go on to achieve.

However, the great unscripted drama that is sport, went on to tell a story of a different Barcelona in the next two seasons of Champions League football. As so often happens in knock-out competition, things didn't always go to plan. Chelsea ended their quest in 2012 when they defended brilliantly at the Nou Camp while last season Barcelona were never quite at the level they had set in years previous. A loss in Milan at this stage last season gave us a glimpse of what was to come. A superb comeback at home showed us again just what they are capable of but two draws against an up-and-coming PSG side in the next round squeezed them through to the battle with Bayern that was so one-sided a new legacy had to be started.

"It is not the end of an era," Andres Iniesta claimed at the time but that is not what the future will say. If this Barcelona team are to go on to accomplish more European success, it will be considered a new era; one without Pep, or Tito Villanova, a team under Gerardo Martino's wing influenced more now by Cesc Fabregas and, in time, Neymar.

The finals against Manchester United in 2009 and 2011 were similar in how they dominated but also in how they took around 10 minutes to get going. Sir Alex Ferguson spoke about it often in the lead-up to their second final together. United needed to take advantage of that time if they were to win.

Not surprisingly Barcelona had more of the ball but United had much more of it in that phase than at any other time, just like in Rome two years earlier.

At Wembley, Barcelona completed just 10 per cent of their total successful passes in that opening 10 minutes but United completed 15.5 per cent of all of their successful passes.

Once Barcelona got going, United, even when they got it back to 1-1, never got any rhythm into the match.

All great teams need to keep reinventing themselves and, having waited 10 weeks since the group stages to show what they could do, this current Barcelona team exploded out of the blocks against Manchester City.

There was a genuine purpose about their start and for 100 seconds, shortly after the first minute was over, City never touched the ball. Four minutes in and Barcelona had already completed 60 successful passes.

The Spanish giants dominating possession is nothing new but them starting this way in the Champions League is.

"Maybe we gave them too much respect in the beginning," reflected City skipper Vincent Kompany, whose mind was drawn back to a time in the game that City couldn't get out of their own half.

Yet, despite this, it was hard to fault City for their style. At 0-0, they defended excellently and as the first half wore on, showed just why some had thought this was a very dangerous tie for Barcelona.

Martino's men will always dominate possession to protect but it is against teams that counter efficiently and remain calm with the ball that they can look vulnerable. In Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, City have two outstanding midfielders who can ensure a team does exactly that. The pair were magnificent in the first half and it would have been interesting to see what more the Brazilian midfielder could have done, had he not tired playing with just 10 men after being injured for over two weeks.

Both were pivotal in a key phase before half-time when City put 22 straight passes together. Not many teams can make Barcelona chase a ball for over a minute without getting it back but Manuel Pellegrini's men did that and were encouraged when they walked off at half-time at 0-0.

Six minutes after the interval, however, the tie turned when Jesus Navas went down and Barcelona countered. It looked like a foul on Navas but he also seemed to try and sell it and at that point, left his team exposed. With them attacking, City had Toure and Fernandinho further away from their back four than normal and one magical pass from Iniesta sent Lionel Messi through on goal before he was chopped down by Martin Demichelis.

Demichelis had to be sent off but had played well up until that moment. 'Well', however, may not have still been good enough and, certainly, was probably the peak of what he could have achieved. He was, for example, never going to be the rock that Kompany was throughout the match. All great teams have a way of exploiting their opponents' main weakness and Barcelona did that in the 53rd minute and, later, in the dying minutes when Neymar and Dani Alves combined to rip apart Joleon Lescott and Gael Clichy on City's left side. The Brazilian right back had a fine match and almost scored earlier when he did the same to City's defensive pair but shot just wide of Joe Hart's goal.

In between those chances, City had their best period of the match when Barcelona showed a conservative approach showing just how vital an away victory in a knock-out stage was crucial. The red card didn't help City but neither did the presence of Lescott and Clichy, who can look nervous against Swansea let alone Barcelona, and the decision to take off Aleksandar Kolarov and leave on David Silva to protect them on the left proved costly.

Barcelona's fantastic four Spaniards gave another football clinic on how to treasure the ball - 409 successful passes from 434 attempts (94.2%). Some call it boring, but once again, they were at their best when their team needed them to protect.

Xavi and Fabregas…..

Sergio Busquets and Iniesta…..

Barcelona arrived in England this week with some fear because Man City were arguably the toughest team they could have been drawn against. They left knowing the stern test was passed, likely marching them into the last eight and a step closer to reaching the same level of success in Europe as they are accomplishing domestically.

Barcelona celebrates (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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