The pressure was especially on Barca centre-forward Luis Suarez, as he returned to the country where he became such a villain during his three and a half years at Liverpool.
Inside 31 minutes, Suarez had found the net twice as Barca took control, even if Sergio Aguero’s second-half goal and Lionel Messi’s late penalty miss meant a 2-1 final score, and the tie remaining alive going into Wednesday’s second leg at the Camp Nou.
Although booed throughout the game by City fans, who remembered the bans imposed for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic during his time in England, Suarez afterwards told Spanish TV after that he had enjoyed his return.
“It is always special to play these type of games,” he said with a smile.
Suarez was less impressed however the next day when photos appeared which some English outlets claimed showed he had bitten City defender Martin Demichelis during the game. The player himself quickly denied any such incident had taken place, but given his history even the denial was widely reported and speculated upon.
Suarez told BeinSports this week he did not enjoy being such a target for British fans and pundits: “I don’t know if there’s a campaign in the English press against me, but you can see they miss me,” he said. “They criticised me so much, now they can find nothing else to fill the space. When they saw the images (of the supposed Demichelis clash) were false, they disappeared. I left (England) because I was tired of them. But even still they keep searching me out.”
By contrast, Suarez has had a controversy-free new start in Catalonia. Since making his debut in October — after a three-month ban for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup ended — he has focused his energies on impressing his new teammates and fans by working hard and playing well.
The goals did not immediately flow, with the €80m signing regularly snatching at chances through his first months.
Even then though the frustration never spilled over into aggression against opponents, maybe because of the anger management course he has apparently attended.
Those scoring issues are past now — with the two crisply taken strikes at City evidence of a return to his Liverpool form. Since then Suarez has scored four times in four domestic games, playing a key role as Barca have taken advantage of Real Madrid’s struggles to move top of La Liga ahead of next weekend’s potentially decisive ‘Clasico’ at the Camp Nou. Unselfish support for fellow forwards Messi and Neymar means he is also currently La Liga’s third best provider (with nine assists in just 18 games).
“I fulfilled my dream of playing for the best club in the world, and now I am enjoying it,” he said last week. “I’m bringing things to the team and am feeling both relaxed and important.”
Suarez did not score in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Eibar; Messi got both goals. But he gave an excellent number nine display, with constant movement, physical presence and intelligent link-up play opening up space for his strike-partners. Messi is now close to his very best form, looking mentally and physically sharp. With 42 goals in all competitions, the Argentinian has matched his total for last season. Suarez’s support is not the only reason for that, but the two South Americans clearly connect on and off the pitch. All of which means that City face a huge challenge at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
The odds are on Suarez again playing a key role as his side progresses, while behaving himself perfectly.
It all could mean double disappointment for the visiting reporters on Wednesday.