When the Champions League group stages were drawn on 25 August, Pep Guardiola’s Nou Camp return was what so many football fans had been waiting for.
Given City’s start to the season, it was meant to be the pinnacle of footballing excellence. It was far from it.
A 4-nil scoreline wasn’t exactly flattering – the Catalans fully deserved all three points – but it was a night littered with errors across the park. Fernandinho’s slip gifted Messi his first of three goals, before Cabellero conceded at his near post and a sleepy John Stones let Suarez race past him to assist the third. Neymar then danced through a disjointed City defence to score a fourth moments after seeing his penalty saved.
Messi scored his 37th Barcelona hat-trick, won a penalty and bagged an assist on what Rio Ferdinand described as a “quiet night”.
Two nights previous, José Mourinho was slated for a characteristically defensive display against a free-scoring Liverpool side. Tonight’s fixture was a far cry from Pep’s usual outings, especially since he arrived at the Etihad. After news broke that Aguero was benched for, arguably, City’s biggest fixture of the season so far, Guillem Balague recalled an excellent Guardiola performance between Barcelona and Santos, in that he applied the same formation – a 4-6-0.
But this time around, it simply didn’t work. In their flashy, bleach bottle kits, City were anything but eye-catching. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva took it in turns to lead the line, both to no avail. Meanwhile Barcelona, who opened their Champions League campaign with a 7-0 thumping of Celtic, were no where near their best. Messi’s 37th hat-trick for the hosts sealed a comfortable victory with Neymar adding the fourth late on, but had it not been for the Argentinian magician, it could’ve been a very different story.
De Bruyne led the line for most of the game, but never came close to opening City’s account.
It was a surprisingly similar story for both sides. Both were forced in to defensive changes – albeit Claudio Bravo brought one of City’s upon himself with a ridiculous attempt to stop the ball outside the box. Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique both left the field through injury, while Zabaleta hobbled off to be replaced by Gael Clichy. Aguero, though, remained firmly seated despite the scoreline still at just 1-0.
But Luis Enrique’s side started the night by besting Pep at his own game. Inside the first minute, quick interchanges between Pique, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Samuel Umtiti saw them play their way out of their own box, while a relentless Nolito attempted to steal the ball. Later in the game Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones were trying the same thing, only to see Messi seal his third goal as a result.
Since dropping their first points of the season at Celtic, Man City have been stuttering along. They followed that game up with a 2-0 loss at White Hart Lane, and then came from behind to seal a 1-1 draw against Everton. Perhaps more startlingly, they haven’t kept a clean sheet for over a month.
Guardiola was left frustrated yet again, with City now winless in their last four.
Pep has been found out, and his lack of a plan b is costing him dearly. Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic secured a point against the previously rampant Sky Blues by pressing high up the field, and stopping Claudio Bravo and co. playing out from the back. And to no surprise whatsoever, every team that has faced them since has employed the same tactic. It’s even more effective when you have someone as tenacious as Luis Suarez leading the line.
It’s too early to say City are in trouble, but unless the Spaniard finds another way of playing it’s tough to see them running away with the Premier League title as many were talking about midway through September. There’s no big striker to lump it up to, and a team that always dominates possession has no chance of playing on the counter attack. He needs that plan b, and he needs it soon.