Tuesday February 24th, 2015

Tuesday’s Champions League round of 16 matches felt, at times, like something out of Back to the Future: there was Barcelona, playing football out of the Guardiola era circa 2009 as it out-passed and out-played Manchester City; and then there was Borussia Dortmund, struggling in the Bundesliga, but, for moments, reprising the gegenpressing that helped it reach the final in 2013. 

One year ago, Barcelona beat Manchester City 2-0 in the first leg at this stage of the competition, but there were extenuating circumstances: Sergio Aguero was out injured, Vincent Kompany was not fully fit and coach Manuel Pellegrini showed too much respect, as it was felt, by starting with only one striker. Tuesday, Barcelona won 2-1; Aguero and Kompany were fully fit, and while Pellegrini started with two strikers, he also picked two wide players, Samir Nasri and David Silva, for whom tracking back is unnatural. It left City outnumbered in midfield and exposed in two-on-ones on the flanks.

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Barcelona stormed into a two-goal, first-half lead thanks to Luis Suarez and it could have been more in a one-way first half. City rallied in the second half, but Edin Dzeko put a point-blank header straight at the goalkeeper and Aguero curled a shot just wide. Once Dzeko and the ineffective Samir Nasri had gone off, Aguero pulled one back, smashing his shot into the roof of the net to give City some hope.

Gael Clichy’s sending-off with 16 minutes left halted the charge, but Joe Hart saved a Lionel Messi penalty in the closing seconds to help keep City afloat. 

It was the same scoreline in Turin, but this time the home side, Juventus, was the victor: goals from Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata coming on either side of Marco Reus’ strike for Borussia Dortmund leaves that tie well-balanced.

Here is what caught our eye on another dramatic night:

Player of the Day: Luis Suarez, Barcelona 

Luis Suarez might want Barcelona to play all its away matches in England given his two-goal performance in his first game back in England since leaving Liverpool last summer. Suarez had the match-winner for the visitor but could have had more: he snatched at an early chance which went into the side-netting, and was denied by Joe Hart in a one-on-one before his second.

Shortly after each miss, though, he scored; first by reacting quickest to a ricochet off Kompany and drilling the ball left-footed into Hart’s far corner; then by timing his run impeccably to edge ahead of his marker to guide Jordi Alba’s cross past Hart to double the lead.

The English goalkeeper must be sick of the sight of him: on their last meeting, Suarez scored twice for Uruguay to essentially knock England out of the World Cup. In fact, Suarez has scored from five of his last six shots against Hart, who can't be looking forward to renewing acquaintances with him. 

Moment of the Day: A pair of late misses

In Turin, you sensed that both sides were happy with Juventus’ 2-1 win over Dortmund: the host had the victory while the visitor had the away goal. It meant that any late goal would turn the tie on its head, and that almost happened when Morata released Roberto Pereyra with five minutes to play. The substitute, on for the injured Andrea Pirlo (a worry for Juve going forward), rolled his shot just past the post.

Before then, Juventus had taken advantage of Dortmund's problems at right back–where Jurgen Klopp played three different players–to take both its goals; first when Tevez turned a Roman Weidenfeller parry into the net, and then Morata tapping home from close range off a precise cross from Paul Pogba.

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In between, Marco Reus gave BVB his second goal since signing his new contract: a smart reaction after Giorgio Chiellini’s inexplicable slip outside the area. 

Reus pounced on the loose ball and drilled it by Gianluigi Buffon.

There was the late miss at the Etihad, and you wonder if the after-effect of this one will be more psychological.

It was another Messi penalty miss, from a spot kick he had earned, and leaves him with a wretched recent record: he has now missed five of his last 10 penalties for club and country, and four of his last seven for Barcelona.

This all dates back to last April, when he changed his strategy from Goalkeeper-Dependent (waiting for the goalkeeper to move first and then aiming the other way) to Goalkeeper-Independent, when he picks his spot, has a quicker run-up, and blasts the ball. Put simply, this method is not working for him. With Neymar also a penalty expert–and master of the Goalkeeper-Dependent method, as he proved at the World Cup–who would be brave enough to suggest the penalty-taking duties are taken off Messi? 

Until that moment–and the diving header off the PK save rebound toward an open goal that Messi also missed–the Argentine had looked back to his best: a nutmeg of David Silva, run past three defenders to release Alba for the second goal, and control of a deflected looping over-the-shoulder cross were just three highlights from an irrepressible performance. But the missed PK will loom large, as it could have put Barcelona in a much more advantageous position.

Takeaway of the Day: Where does this leave Pellegrini?

Manchester City’s owners are patient, and they know that the Champions League cannot be won quickly. They understand that the normal process for winning teams is to reach a few quarter- or semifinals before a final, and maybe even lose a final or two before finally winning it all. This season, though, what the owners wanted to see was progress. A sense that the club is progressing in the Champions League, even if it is a competition with which the fans still struggle to engage.

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That progress has been palpable for one of City’s seven games in Europe so far this season, the Matchday Six away win at Roma. If that looked like a turning point, this suggests it wasn’t.

Instead, in the first half, City was full of the defensive shambles from the Matchday Three draw at CSKA Moscow, and the nerves that dogged the Matchday Four home loss to the same team. 

The second half was far, far better, but there were reasons for that: Barcelona was defending its lead and playing much deeper; and crucially, City, at 2-0 down, had nothing to lose and went for it (in a similar way to its 3-2 Matchday Five win over Bayern, when two late Aguero goals overturned a 0-2 deficit). But why get into the hopeless position in the first place? And without progress, where does that leave Pellegrini for next season? 

City will say there is no change planned, and everything is hunky-dory–and the Chilean is now 15 games, 13 losses and seven years since his last win over Barcelona (back in his Villarreal days)–but would City have conceded the same goals with, say, Diego Simeone in charge? The odds on Pellegrini starting next season’s European adventure at the Etihad must be longer now.

How the second legs shape up

City ended its defeat with some momentum, after a decent second-half response, but for the third time in its last three matches against Barcelona, ended the game with 10 men. That means no Clichy for the return, but Yaya Toure will be back after his suspension for the first leg. Barcelona has twice failed to score at Camp Nou this season–most recently, last weekend against Malaga–but even a 1-0 win won’t be enough for City. Barcelona’s two away goals give it a heavy advantage to get into the next round. City’s rally may well be too little, too late. 

The Dortmund-Juventus tie is impossible to call, with a 1-0 win enough to see the Germans through. There’s a but: chasing a game does not suit Klopp’s side, which prefers to play on the counter, and you feel that Juventus could have enough to score an away goal to make its life easier. The numbers favor Dortmund, but only just: of teams who lost a first leg 2-1 away from home, 51% go through, 49% do not. Will the two per cent advantage be enough for Klopp? We will find out in three weeks… 

13:20 | Planet Futbol
Under The Crest: Chelsea FC

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