KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- In years to come, fans may look back to November 1, 2016, as the day Manchester City finally stepped up among the established elite of the modern, big-money European club game.
Their ‘revenge’ 3-1 victory over Barcelona after the 4-0 battering in Nou Camp still left them as theoretical 5-3 losers on aggregate; Barcelona were also weakened by signficant absences such as Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta.
However City, after conceding Leo Messi’s 90th Champions League, proved in remarkable style that they possess the mental strength and attacking style to go head-to-head with the best that the continental game can offer. This can work wonders for their confidence in the months ahead not only in Europe but in the Premier League.
Victory, albeit in a somewhat chaotic fashion and with the help of some poor Catalan defending, was also a personal vindication for Pep Guardiola. City had looked tactically constricted in midfield in the first half when Messi and Neymar were given the freedom of the wings; that outplayed City conceded only one goal was remarkable.
Once Ilkay Gundogan – only one of a string of several City performers alongside Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling – had equalised against the run of play, then the atmosphere changed dramatically both in the crowd and out on the pitch.
Fortune was balanced on both sides: City should have been awarded a penalty early in the first half while Andre Gomes hit the bar late in the second.
The decisive moment was the superb free kick from De Bruye shortly after the interval which put City into the lead against Barcelona for the first time in the six Champions League meetings between the teams. De Bruyne struck his shot perfectly over the wall to catch Marc-Andre ter Stegen wrongfooted on the goal line.
Oddly, but perhaps illustrating City’s second-half command, ter Stegen recorded more passes (45) and touches (50) than Luis Suarez (23 and 44).
Guardiola said later: : “Considering our situation – how short a time we have been together, having never beaten the best team in world, and our position in the group – this victory was so important. Now we have one more game to win to go in February (to the last 16), and hopefully then it will be good, or better, to keep us going.
“This club was for many years out of Europe, while these kind of clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich were playing every year.
“We need time, and I know people don’t have time, but I think the club will give us time. Maybe this is a good step. Now we realise: ‘Wow, we won against the best team, so we are able to do that’.
“For the future generations, for new players coming in the future, they are going to realise: ‘These guys were able to beat the best team, and we have to do it again’. That is the process, especially in the Champions League.
“It is the same when the group of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and those kind of players won the Premier League two times – so the people who come now know, they understand they have to try to do that.”
The value and significance of City’s victory was underlined by the assessment of Barcelona coach Luis Enrique that “it was one of the best 40 minutes we have played, particularly on a stage like this against a top-quality rival.”
He added: “It is a shame that after the error we made for the first goal, from thereon we had a bad time. When you concede a goal in that way, it is normal that you go through a bad period.
“In the second half we hoped to continue to dominate the game but, because of errors we made and pressure from the opponents, we didn’t have as much possession of the ball. We weren’t able to control the game in the same way.
“The first 40 minutes were for us, the following 50 were for them, and the result reflects that.”
* After the English folk verse recalling the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November – the Gunpowder treason and plot . . .