Barcelona 1-0 Manchester City (Rakitic 31″)
This was always going to be it for this Manchester City. Last year, Joe Hart, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and co sat on their haunches, beaten convincingly in Catalonia. They wondered whether their time would come again, if this watershed fixture would flicker once more, and barely 12 months later it did.
But one man ensured that the outcome would emphatically be the same. The margin of defeat may have been finer, but its manner made a mockery of any notion of progress. Many of these players will not see the light of a Champions League knock-out match again in a sky blue shirt.
Lionel Messi had given City a glimmer of hope in the last knockings of the first leg three weeks ago at the Etihad. His penalty miss made us wonder if the improbable was possible. Hart stood in his way then, and the England goalkeeper was magnificent again throughout.
Andres Iniesta promised to make City suffer in the build-up, and were it not for Hart they would certainly have inflicted another footballing lesson reflected in the scoreline. With the game already won, the England stopper denied all three of Barcelona’s triple threat – Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar – from point-blank range.
Trailing on the night, Sergio Aguero had the chance to set up a grandstand finish, but his tame spot-kick was easily saved by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen. It was the perfect height for the German keeper, but the 3-1 aggregate defeat over the two legs flattered Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
Once the home side found their rhythm, it was Neymar who delivered the first scare, the Brazilian somehow striking the inside of the post after Kompany loitered on the edge of his box and Dani Alves had picked his pocket. City rattled, Yaya Toure was next to pile pressure on his own back four, but Suarez failed to pick the right pass.
Then Messi leant the ball to Iniesta, the give-and-go left Kompany for dead, and stung the loins of Hart. On 16 minutes, Messi whipped a free-kick that landed just on the top of Hart’s net – he wasn’t getting there, such was the velocity of the strike.
City looked to respond, Aleksandar Kolarov shooting from afar but it was taken well into the stomach of Ter Stegen. The front three of Barcelona had no intention to defend. It pinned City’s full-backs from venturing too far forward, and ultimately resulted in Kolarov being booked for a cynical challenge on Messi after 26 minutes.
The diminutive brick of dynamite then impishly darted through Fernandinho as though his legs were cones, and Messi then drew a foul from David Silva when racing towards an isolated Martin Demichelis. This time, the free-kick was closer than before, but the outcome the same.
Luis Enrique’s side didn’t have to wait long for the breakthrough however. Five minutes after Kolarov’s booking, the scandalous talent Messi hung on the Serbian’s shoulder waiting for the counter-attack, duly running at the defender once in possession before delivering a delicious pass to Ivan Rakitic over the head of Bacary Sagna, who’d been drawn inside by the run of Neymar. The Croatian had left Toure in his wake, subtlety taking the ball down on his chest before poking the ball over the onrushing Hart and under the bar.
Frustration was getting the better of City, and Samir Nasri was very lucky not to be sent off for hacking at Neymar’s ankles. The visitors needed to keep their discipline, knowing the need for two goals all along.
But the gulf in class was glaring.
Pep Guardiola was enjoying his return to the Camp Nou, left holding his face by Messi’s next nutmeg. Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville described James Milner being left on his backside as barbaric, as he sat cross-legged on the gantry.
Barcelona wanted the perfect goal. With Messi at the heart of everything, City were getting too close and then not close enough, allowing him space to pick out Neymar, but he chose to cut the ball back when bearing down on goal. Suarez was next to go close, as he ran through a gaping hole between Kompany and Demichelis to hit the post when released by Neymar on the stroke of half-time.
Jesus Navas was introduced for the cautioned Nasri at the interval, with Milner moved to a more advanced central role, as Pellegrini urged his players to press higher up the pitch, but whenever they found space to deliver a cross, the ball was met by the imperious Gerard Pique. Ter Stegen then took a risk, dwelling on the ball and losing it to Aguero, but his goal-bound shot was cleared comfortably by Pique again.
On the hour-mark, Suarez sliced a left-foot shot into the side netting, and it began a frantic spell as first City nearly equalized when Navas raced to the by-line but neither Kolarov nor Milner could make the necessary contact, and then Messi resumed his battle with Hart, being denied twice in a matter of minutes.
Alba had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, and Hart kept the deficit at one after Aguero’s weak penalty with 13 minutes left, which ended any life remaining in the English champions.