Is this really the worst Barcelona side for years? Then the teams Jose Mourinho was referring to must have been unbelievably adept. The Blaugrana, despite their recent critics, produced a master class of a performance as they shunned the ardent Manchester City faithful into complete silence, watching in admiration.
Their passing, as usual, was a pleasure to watch as they ran City ragged. Tata Martino's men, with predatory instincts, probed and probed for the incisive pass which would slice the stout City resistance open. And that one pass arrived from the majestic Andres Iniesta and found its way through to Lionel Messi, who was brought down, whether it was in the box is disputable, by Martin Demichelis for a Barca penalty, duly converted by Messi. And Dani Alves netted through the legs of Joe Hart as fatigue reigned in on a 10-men City side. Qualification for the quarter-finals for Manchester City is an uphill task now as they prepare to visit the Camp Nou to overturn a two-goal deficit, it being not the easiest place to do so.
But it was cruel on Pellegrini's men, having fought tirelessly before and after Demichelis's unnecessary expulsion. The Argentine, along with captain Vincent Kompany, had been superb prior to his exit, reading the game well and chipping in with timely interceptions. Fernandinho, who was a major doubt for the match, was impeccable along with Yaya Toure as their determined pressing of the ball and commitment epitomized the whole City display. After going down to Messi's spot-kick, their spirit and fight was to be commended, and they had a few chances to equalise, the most notable being Valdes's world-class stop from a David Silva's volley, who was flawless throughout. It is a difficult defeat for City fans to swallow, having contested well and posed a threat to the La Liga leaders and champions.
It was night of seemingly many to come, with significant Champions League evenings at the Etihad to become no rarity for a club which lapped up his first taste of elite football only two years ago.
But nonetheless, it will take a while to exit the minds of players and fans alike.
There was not much, in terms of goalscoring opportunities, between the sides in the first period. For their abundance of possession, the Catalans were reduced to potshots, with Xavi forcing Hart into a diving save with a powerful swerving strike.
The single noteworthy chance of the first forty-five fell to Alvaro Negredo, as he bustled his way in between Mascherano and Pique, rounded Valdes but was unable to steer the ball goal wards from a narrow angle as such. Nicknamed "The Beast", City looked to find the Spain international through direct play as his physical presence troubled former Liverpool man Javier Mascherano, who fails to be described in a similar light.
It was an encouraging first-half, and a belief and confidence booster too. City had kept a conservative Barca side at bay and had asked a few questions themselves. And when Swedish multi-millionaire referee Jonas Eriksson blew his whistle to resume play, players and fans alike were in a positive frame of mind. But then the next few minutes proved how the dynamics of a game can change in an instant.
Disputably, it seemed as if Jordi Alba had clipped Spanish team-mate Jesus Navas as City attempted to cause Barca problems on the break. Eriksson waved play on, much to the displeasure of the home support at the Etihad. The visitors took full advantage, with midfield maestro Iniesta threading a wonderful through ball into Messi's path. The four-time Ballon d'Or winner had noticed that captain Kompany had not sufficiently organised his back-line, and the Argentine forward timed his move to perfection. He was through on goal and all set to chip the ball over the helpless Hart, but was unnecessarily brought down by Demichelis, with the former Malaga defender heading towards the tunnel as soon as Eriksson had blown his whistle. He knew what was coming, a red card. While the legality of the penalty is debatable, with the initial contact outside the box, Eriksson's decision to deliver Demichelis his marching orders is not up for negotiation. It was a Pellegrini gamble which had horribly back-fired on the Chilean, even though he may harangue the referee come full-time.
It was additionally disappointing on Demichelis's part, with the 32 year-old having done well up to that decisive point. He had ushered Alexis Sanchez towards to corner flag to diffuse a promising opening for Martino's under-scrutiny Barcelona side. He had, as mentioned, read the play superbly well and pinched possession on more than one occasion. All the same, his selection, considering his propensity to be sluggish, to face Messi, one of, if not, the most intelligent and nimble attacker on the planet, was not one taken in sagacious thought.But City fought gallantly for a large period of the second-half, and made sure the Catalans did not have it easy. Dzeko, who replaced the hard-working Negredo, could have scored from a scrumptious pass over the top from Silva, but was deemed to have pushed ex-United defender Pique out of ball's contention. But their most appealing opportunity arrived courtesy of brilliant play from Man City. Zabaleta cushioned a beautifully-weighted pass into the path of the majestic Silva, who skilfully controlled it on his chest and unleashed a volley towards the Barca goal. It may have been sourced from his weaker right foot, but it still forced Valdes into a world-class stop to deny City a glimmer of hope going into the second-leg in Catalonia.However, any hope harboured around the Etihad Stadium was brutally dispelled as Neymar found Brazilian team-mate Dani Alves who thread the ball between the legs of Hart as Barca began to make use of their numerical advantage.