The Dossier: Why now is the perfect time to play Barcelona

Goal.com

If you wanted to beat Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, you had to be at your best and hope the Catalans were having an off day. Thankfully for Manchester City, Guardiola is long gone and those off days are increasingly common.

Saturday's defeat at Valladolid was the latest in a string of below-par performances which go to show that you can have the best players in the world, but without a coherent gameplan you won't win any titles.

And if City plays its cards right on Tuesday it can do the unthinkable and overturn a 2-0 deficit to make the Champions League quarterfinals.

Talk of decline at Barca is inevitable, especially when somebody like Guardiola departs, but even as Barcelona dropped a level under Tito Vilanova last season, Tata Martino's 2013-14 version is currently a shell of the 2008-11 golden era. Jose Mourinho had it right, this is the worst Barca in years, and they appear to be getting worse.

On Saturday, Valladolid took the somewhat unusual step of pressing Barca all over the pitch. They went ahead after 15 minutes thanks to some sloppy defending and, remarkably, Barca could not find a goal in the remaining 65 minutes.

A NEW LOW
BARCA'S STATS AT VALLADOLID
GOALS SCORED
CHANCES CREATED
SHOTS ON TARGET
SHOTS OFF TARGET
CROSSES/CORNERS
CROSSES/CORNERS FAILED
PASSES
PASSES FAILED
PASSES FAILED IN FINAL THIRD
PASSING ACC. FINAL THIRD
0
7
6
6
21
15
683
94
77
76%

Valladolid actually left space between their center backs and central midfielders, a rare tactic among sides to have beaten Barca in recent weeks. But the hosts' setup meant that the Catalans, even with Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi on the pitch, could not exploit that space.

Valladolid's center backs, usually Jesus Rueda, would step out of the defence to stick tight to Messi, and when Barca looked like it may be capable of working the ball in behind Reuda, he would drop back and pass Messi on to a deep-lying midfielder.

Barca did get players into that space, but they turned in such a poor performance it barely mattered. The deep-lying midfielders, under pressure from their opponents, could not find Messi, and even when they did, his out balls to the wings often only led to poor crosses - they created just seven chances, a season low, and misplaced 94 passes, the third-worst all season.

While Barcelona does have problems at the moment, it must not be forgotten that it does have some of the best players in the world, and with a two-goal cushion (away goals at that), just one moment of magic from Lionel Messi, Neymar, Andres Iniesta, or any number of others can put the tie beyond Manuel Pellegrini's men.

But even despite Sunday's defeat to Wigan, City will not have a better opportunity to beat Barcelona this season. As well as the Valladolid embarrassment, the Catalans lost 3-2 at Camp Nou to Valencia at the start of February and 3-1 at Real Sociedad three weeks later. Unlike Valladolid, both Valencia and La Real defended narrowly and restricted the space between their defenders and midfielders, not allowing Barca time to work the ball in their favoured areas, and effectively marginalising Messi.

In the first leg at the Etihad Stadium, City's midfielders were also very deep when Barca had the ball, which was most of the night, and at times were almost on top of the defence. Whenever they got the ball they aimed to burst forward quickly to catch Barca off-guard.

Of course, they were undone by Martin Demichelis' foul on Messi but the preceding passage of play highlights exactly what City was trying to do, and exactly what Valencia and La Real have done in recent weeks.

In the buildup to the penalty incident, Barca failed on two occasions to play a killer ball - first over and then through - the City ranks. First Cesc Fabregas' chip towards Messi was headed away by Fernandinho, who was covering in behind Vincent Kompany, and then Iniesta tried to thread one through to Xavi, only to be thwarted by Kompany. The Belgian launched a counterattack, striding out of defense before laying the ball off to David Silva, as Aleksandar Kolarov bombed forward on the left, Jesus Navas joined from the right and Yaya Toure came through the middle. Navas lost possession, though, Toure and Fernandinho were caught ahead of the ball, Kompany was five yards deeper than the rest of his defense, Iniesta took possession in acres of space, Messi timed his move perfectly and the rest is history.

KEY MAN?
MESSI'S STATS AT THE ETIHAD
CHANCES CREATED
PASSES
PASSES FAILED
PASSING ACCURACY
PASSES IN FINAL THIRD
PASSES FAILED IN FINAL THIRD
PASSING ACC. FINAL THIRD
SHOTS ON TARGET
SHOTS OFF TARGET
DRIBBLES ATTEMPTED
DRIBBLES COMPLETED
0
84
7
91%
43
7
86%
3
2
7
4

From then on Barca ran away with it, showing that if you have top-level players, brought up on passing football, playing against 10 men then you will create chances, through muscle memory if nothing else. It had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside after outmaneuvering Toure and Fernandinho, and two examples of quick passing on the right set Dani Alves free, and at the second time of asking he made it 2-0.

Demichelis had played well before he was airlifted out of his comfort zone and dropped into no-man's land, and City certainly thought it was handling Barcelona comfortably before the red card.

The onus will be on City to go for goals on Wednesday, and it has started recent big games - namely against Chelsea in league and cup - on the front foot.

Set pieces also provide an opportunity to make their mark. Barca has always struggled from corners and free kicks, even at its peak, and this season is certainly no exception. Eight of the 22 league goals Barca has conceded this season have been headers, and Real Sociedad and Almeria, even though the latter were defeated, have made hay from corners recently. The Catalans are simply guilty of switching off on a regular basis, and Victor Valdes has been left wanting with increasing frequency.

Barcelona, at the moment, is not a world-class team, but a team of world-class players. It can still win games thanks to quality and reputation but, week on week, that reputation is diminishing.

It will not be easy, but Manchester City know what it has to do to win, and there's no better time than Wednesday to do it.

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