MANCHESTER (Reuters) - Manchester City had the perfect opportunity to prove they belong with Europe’s elite on Tuesday but the Premier League champions blew it.
A 2-1 loss to Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium barely hinted at the disparity on the pitch.
While City will go to the Nou Camp next month for the second leg of this Champions League, last 16 tie still afloat, they will need to conjure something remarkable to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
For all the pre-match talk of “no fear” and “fighting fire with fire” Manuel Pellegrini’s side were overwhelmed by a rampant Barcelona before halftime, lacking self-belief.
Luis Suarez scored twice, Lionel Messi cut through City’s lines like a knife through butter and Neymar teased on the left and Andres Iniesta was masterful, keeping Barca’s passing carousel turning at a dizzying speed.
For all the impressive infrastructure the club has built with the money invested by their Abu Dhabi owners, the world-class training complex adjacent to the expanding Etihad Stadium, the squad has too many weak links.
In 14 Champions League home ties they have only kept one clean sheet. While rivals Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground used to be a fortress, City often look cowed when facing the big guns on their home turf.
Looking at the starting line-ups it was hard to make a case for more than a couple of City players making the Barcelona first eleven. Tactically they looked naive.
So it was a surprise to hear Pellegrini say afterwards that his side had played exactly the way he wanted.
He spoke beforehand of fighting for possession of the ball but the ease with which Barca carved them up in the first half suggested his side had not been listening.
His attacking 4-4-2 system was horribly exposed as City’s playmakers David Silva and Samir Nasri were spectators while Sergio Aguero toiled up front in vain.
Nasri managed only 31 touches of the ball while at the back captain Vincent Kompany had a torrid night.
“No, I was very happy. It was the way we must play against Barcelona,” Pellegrini told reporters of his team’s approach.
“We played two different games; the first half and the second half. Before the first goal it was a very normal game.”
The English champions did improve after the break, aided by a sleepy start to the second half by Barca, but were still fortunate to still be in the tie come the final whistle.
Left back Gael Clichy will be suspended for the second leg after his red card, although City will be able to welcome back midfield general Yaya Toure for the second leg — a player who undoubtedly belongs at Europe’s top table.
City may yet prove they do too, but the likelihood is that their fourth Champions League adventure will end prematurely and their plan to emulate United’s European glory will have to go back to the drawing board.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Amlan Chakraborty