Gary Lim: City's Fab Five must wake up against Barca
ROUND OF 16, SECOND LEG
BARCELONA v MAN CITY
(Tomorrow, 3.45am, Singtel TV Ch 111)
- Barcelona lead 2-1 from first leg
Manchester City are on a downward spiral and much of the criticism has been directed at beleaguered boss Manuel Pellegrini. But the manager is only as good as the players on the pitch. If the Citizens are to have any chance of overturning a 2-1 first-leg deficit against Barcelona tomorrow morning (Singapore time), their big guns have to step up at the Nou Camp. Can the Fab Five respond to the call?
A busy night awaits the Man City and England goalkeeper.
Expect free-scoring Barcelona to stretch Hart to his limit and City will need him to be at his best.
In their final group game against Roma, the 27-year-old was the one who performed heroics between the posts to help his side earn a 2-0 away win and squeeze into the last 16.
Hart was also the one who kept City's quarter-final hopes alive - albeit a very slim one - with his outstanding performance in the first leg against Barcelona. On top of several excellent saves, he also stopped Lionel Messi's spot-kick in injury time to limit the damage to a 2-1 loss.
He is convinced that City's European dream is not over yet.
"We're going there to win," he said.
Based on this season's performances, he is probably the only City player who can say that with a certain amount of conviction.
One of the English top flight's best centre backs in recent years, the Belgian had been the benchmark for excellence and consistency. Until recently.
So exasperated was manager Manuel Pellegrini that he resorted to dropping his captain for the league match against Leicester City a fortnight ago.
Recalled to the starting line-up for last Saturday's trip to Burnley, the 28-year-old produced yet another poor performance as the Citizens crashed to a shock 1-0 defeat.
City need him to discover his mojo to have any chance of stopping Barcelona's terrific trio of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Messi.
Barcelona will provide the stiffest test of his character yet.
His absence has been sorely felt.
The Ivorian midfielder hasn't played in the Champions League since last November. He was slapped with a three-match suspension following a sending-off against CSKA Moscow.
Now, he's back. But is it too late?
City certainly hope that's not the case.
He is the man Barcelona defender Gerard Pique described as a "very, very important player for City".
Considering City need to score at least two goals, Pellegrini will be tempted to deploy him in a more advanced midfield position.
If he dominates the middle of the park, City will control the crucial attacking launchpad.
Toure may also feel he has something to prove against his former employers.
Even Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez would love to have Silva in his side, as he recently admitted.
In truth, Silva has been one of City's better performers this season.
But, like most of his teammates, he's going through a bad patch recently.
Mere glimpses of his magic just won't suffice, certainly not against opponents of Barcelona's calibre.
However, if he turns on the style, he will be quite a handful, even for the Catalan giants.
His twists and turns at the edge of the penalty box and his eye for the killer pass make him City's best creative source. His goal return has been impressive, too.
A goal against Barcelona will see him surpass his current best haul of 10 goals in a single season.
Few doubt his reputation as one of the world's deadliest strikers.
But the Argentinian is struggling to replicate his form from the first half of the season.
After racking up 19 goals in his first 20 games in all competitions, the goals have slowed to almost a trickle - four goals in his last 12 matches.
A knee ligament injury last December has halted his momentum and, as a result, City's as well.
But Aguero is one for the big occasion, and he has developed an appetite for the Champions League.
A hat-trick against Bayern Munich in the group phase and a goal against Barcelona in the first leg are evidence of his quality. His six goals in the competition make him City's top marksman.
Pellegrini must find a way to keep the service to him flowing.
Elimination from Europe may be the last straw for Man City's owners.
The defeat by Burnley called into question Pellegrini's motivational skills.
The loss to Barcelona in the first leg exposed flaws in his tactics.
An open 4-4-2 against opponents of such quality looked suicidal, and it wasn't helped by Aguero's and Edin Dzeko's reluctance to help out the defence.
It was therefore hardly surprising that the unfamiliar Fernando-James Milner central midfield partnership was over-run.
Pellegrini is on a mission to save City's season, and possibly his job.
"I am not a City player, so I can’t say what has happened (in European games) but, from afar, my perception of them hasn’t changed much. I see them as a very strong team with many great players and one that are difficult to beat."
- Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta on Manchester City
How to beat Barca
MAN CITY MUST DROP 4-4-2 FORMATION
Former Man City striker and ex-Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn says it's a mistake for Manuel Pellegrini to play with two strikers in a 4-4-2 formation, reported Sky Sports.
"They're getting found out by playing with two strikers against the best teams in Europe," said Quinn.
"It's all right playing two strikers when you're dominating the ball and you're on the front foot all the time.
"But if that's not happening, then you need to be a different team."
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville wrote in his Telegraph column: "City are unbalanced when they play 4-4-2 with Yaya Toure, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero in the starting line-up.
"They leave themselves exposed too often. The option is a change of system."
NEUTRALISE THEIR POSSESSION GAME
Last month, Malaga won 1-0 at Barcelona in La Liga despite enjoying just 27 per cent of possession. The more telling statistic was that both teams had 11 shots on goal.
Malaga coach Javi Garcia said: "You have to control the game through good defensive work, not through possession, because you cannot do that against Barcelona.
"The player who wins the ball back must play it forward immediately, to bypass their initial press. The forwards must be waiting, to offer themselves in the spaces we know will be there if their fullbacks push forward.
"If you do not break and hold the ball against Barcelona, you never get out. They have possession, possession, possession and, in the end, you are exhausted - and then you are in trouble."
PRESS HIGH, DEFEND AS A TEAM
In Barcelona's loss to PSG last September, they recorded their lowest duel success rate (43 per cent) and fewest successful passes in their own half (195) in the Champions League this season.
"If City want to approach the game like PSG did, then that is the way to unsettle Barcelona," said Sky Sports pundit Guillem Balague.
"There was pressure high and, when they couldn't recover the ball early, PSG tracked back as a team.
"Everybody defended very compact with two lines of four and then they had very fast players up front to counter-attack and use the space that Barca leave behind their defence.
"That is the way. They have to get at the Barca players and have a clear idea of what they want to do."
HIT BARCA ON THE COUNTER
Barcelona's attacking approach can make them vulnerable, something Rubin Kazan exploited in beating Pep Guardiola's team at the Nou Camp back in 2009.
"Barcelona like to use the whole pitch," said Rubin boss Kurban Berdyev.
"Their fullbacks tend to play wide and leave some space in the centre. We were ready to organise our counter-attack through that area, so we waited for the right opportunity."
- Wire Services.
Barcelona have been flying in recent weeks and are now targeting a Treble as they head La Liga by one point over Real Madrid and reached the Copa del Rey final two weeks ago with a 6-2 aggregate win over Villarreal.
Another two goals from Lionel Messi sealed a 16th win in 17 games with a 2-0 victory at Eibar last Saturday, while Luis Suarez has began to find his feet with six goals in his last five games, including the two which gave Barca a 2-1 lead over Man City from the first leg.
Man City now find themselves in a fight just to reach the Champions League again next season after a shock 1-0 away defeat by Burnley at the weekend means they remain six points off leaders Chelsea and having played a game more than Jose Mourinho's men. - AFP.