Manchester City have recruited Barcelona’s greatest manager, hired their most successful Director of Football and have 13 former Barcelona coaches involved in their academy as they try desperately to replicate the Catalan model; but the one man they couldn’t buy proved Sheikh Mansour’s project is still some way from completion.
Lionel Messi’s hat-trick in the Nou Camp in a match in which City self-destructed to lose 4-0 after a positive start, underlined that however well run a club may be and however fast its progress, football can be very painful indeed.
City will look back on key moments in this match — a slip by Fernandinho, a stupid sending off for Claudio Brava, a controversial decision to leave out Sergio Aguero — and think they could have done so much better. But the end result is certainly a massive setback and a serious blow to the self-belief of Pep Guardiola’s side.
It is no real secret that since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan bought Manchester City for €260m in 2008, everything been building up to this moment; a time when his club could finally face Barca on equal terms.
The dream right from those early days was to build a club that had been on the brink of financial disaster into a global brand based on the Barcelona model. So going to the Nou Camp should have been a moment to treasure.
For a while, it was. City looked the better side in the first half despite going 1-0 down and matched their opponents in almost every aspect of the game. But the visitors imploded after the break as defensive problems came back to haunt them in what became a heartbreaking night.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh. When you consider the takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group came in the year that Manchester United had been crowned English and European champions — and in which City finished ninth in the Premier League, 32 points adrift of their rivals — not many people believed they would ever get this far.
Year by year City since that first season, the club has grown and progressed, under the guidance of Director of Football Txiki Begiristain.
City arrived in Barca with Guardiola and Begiristain in their ranks these days and proud that their world-renowned academy, based on the La Masia model, had produced five age-group champion teams last season.
They are now ranked the sixth most valuable Club in football by Forbes, are second only to United in terms of revenue and this week announced profits of £20m for last season — five years after reporting annual losses of £194.9m.
So all Sheikh Mansour needed at the Nou Camp was a performance to prove his investment has now created a team capable of matching the very best; but he didn’t get it.
On the positive side, this was a very different performance to the one in the semi-final in Madrid last year when Manuel Pellegrini’s men froze in the Bernabeu; it was mistakes and not lack of belief which cost them this time and despite the result there were periods of play when City more than matched their rivals. Hard to believe for a 4-0 defeat. But the negatives, and they were many, came in the sloppy defending that gifted Messi three goals on a night when, ironically, he wasn’t even at his best.
What will hurt City most if they dare to watch the video is that every goal Barca scored was avoidable.
Fernandinho slipped for the first, Kevin de Bruyne gave the ball away for the second, Ilkay Gundogan’s back-pass led to the third — and John Stone’s pathetic challenge allowed Neymar to score number four.
Add in Brava’s embarrassing handball outside the box which earned him an inevitable red card (this is the man who Guardiola has put so much faith in after axing Joe Hart) and you can see why this was not the landmark night so many City fans had hoped for.
Considering Barcelona were always favourites to finish top of Group C it does not necessarily mean City’s long-held Champions League dream is over; but it is a significant stumble in what has been a pretty seamless march to the top over the last eight years — just when it seemed the promised land was in sight.
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