Old friends are best as rivals eye first leg edge

Barcelona midfielders Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta should recognise their surroundings when they emerge from the tunnel for tonight’s Champions League last 16 first leg at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.

Xavi and Iniesta have been there before — for City’s first ever game at what was then called the Millennium Stadium — an August 2003 friendly in which Kevin Keegan’s home side (which contained Richard Dunne, Sun Jihai and Shaun Goater) ran out 2-1 winners.

A lot has changed in the blue half of Manchester in the decade since, especially since Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour began to invest hundreds of millions of euro to turn a sleeping giant into a European superpower.

But the thinking which saw the Catalan club invited to the stadium opening remains — with former Barca board members Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, now chief executive and sporting director at City.

Soriano and Begiristain were key backroom men during the Josep Guardiola era at Barcelona, but left after Sandro Rosell was elected club president in 2010 — with the parting particularly acrimonious.

City took advantage to hire the two executives and give them the job of building a similar all-conquering side.

That led directly to Roberto Mancini being replaced as manager by Manuel Pellegrini last summer. The Chilean coach had twice been close to being named Barca boss due to his impressive record with other Spanish clubs, and his appointment as first team coach was part of a ‘holistic’ project, with one philosophy uniting playing style, scouting, youth development and overall club strategy.

“My understanding with Begiristain, with Ferran Soriano, and with the club’s owners is absolute,” Pellegrini told El Pais yesterday. “That was why I turned down other clubs to come here.

“It was not about money. Txiki talked to me about common causes, that he did not want to imitate Barca, that we were looking for our own identity. Although the idea is similar, that is true.”

Not an imitation, but pretty close. Even with the economic firepower to sign almost any player, Pellegrini’s XI tonight will likely include four colleagues of Xavi and Iniesta in Spain’s national team (Javi Garcia, Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo and David Silva).

Other City stars know Barca talisman Leo Messi better. Sergio Aguero and Pablo Zabaleta were fellow members of Argentina youth sides which won the 2005 U20 World Cup and then 2008 Olympics, and the three remain close friends. Aguero’s father recently revealed that Messi and his son — who should return from injury to play the second leg at Camp Nou on March 12th — had been talking ahead of the tie.

“Sergio and Leo are always talking on the telephone, and even more since the draw,” he said. “They are very good friends. They like to joke amongst themselves, and are already ribbing each other.”

Then there’s Yaya Toure, who joined City from Barcelona for around €30m in 2010. In three seasons at Barca the powerful midfielder won two La Liga crowns and the 2009 Champions League.

Although Guardiola then forced him out of the Camp Nou to make room for Sergio Busquets, Toure claimed last week that he was not out for revenge.

“I don’t really want to play Barcelona,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for a club which taught me a lot, and where I have many friends who helped me. The Camp Nou is the stadium where I always wanted to play. Now I am coming back wearing a different shirt. But that’s football.”

Toure could well be seeing much more of these old friends in the near future, due to his current club’s apparently endless resources and its former Barca directors’ excellent contacts. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Victor Valdes, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro Rodriguez have all being linked with City during recent transfer windows. Zabaleta was even quoted in the English press last weekend saying Messi had quizzed him about life in Manchester.

And Rosell’s successor as Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed to be unworried when asked last week about his former colleagues at the Camp Nou building a ‘new Barca’ in north-west England.

“That is life, and the business of football,” Bartomeu said. “They are professionals contracted by City. Good luck to them, except when they are up against us.”

Bartomeu could sound confident as Barca’s greater European experience, and Messi’s return to form and fitness, makes them favourites to progress to the last eight this time around. But the balance is tilting quickly as the Catalan influence at the Etihad grows and grows.


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