[UCL PREVIEW: Man City-Barcelona]To the victor go the quips. In between a 2-0 FA Cup defeat of Chelsea and a monumental Champions League game against Barcelona, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrinichanged course to take a swipe at his team’s bitterest rival.
“If we only consider this season, there is just one club in Manchester and it's ours but you cannot forget what United has done in the previous years,” said Pellegrini on Monday of the defending Premier League champion, which is mired in the middle of the standings. “We are aiming to keep growing by winning trophies -- not just national but international trophies. We are fighting for four titles this year.”
City plays Sunderland in the Capital Cup (League Cup) final March 2, has been matched with Wigan in the FA Cup quarterfinals, and is a point behind leader Chelsea in the Premier League. Thus, there’s plenty on its plate heading into Tuesday's home leg in the round of 16 (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), which marks its first appearance in the knockout phase after falling out in the group phase the past two seasons.
It won five of its six group games, yet a 3-1 home loss to Bayern served as reminder of where City stands among the Euro hierarchy until proven otherwise. It has played torrid soccer since that defeat: 25 wins, three ties, and three losses, 94 goals scored, and 31 conceded. (However, two of those losses came in league play to Chelsea, which resumes its own Champions League campaign next week against Turkish club Galatasaray.)
The scoring ranks have grown recently with the emergence of Montenegrin Steven Jovetic, a $36 million summer signing from Fiorentina who has been struggling with injuries and illness. He netted his first City goal last month in a 5-1 Premier League rout of Tottenham and connected again for the winner against Chelsea as City reversed a 1-0 defeat in league play 12 days prior.
Jovetic started against Chelsea paired up top with Edin Dzeko, and gave away in the 61st minute for Sami Nasri, who himself was returning from a five-week absence due to a hamstring injury. Six minutes after entering, Nasri tucked away a return feed from David Silva to ice the victory, and his return to health brightens City’s hopes with top scorer Sergio Aguero sidelined by a bad hamstring and midfielder James Milner suspended.
Like City, Barcelona is locked in a tight three-way race for the league lead. A 6-0 demolition of Rayo Vallecano Saturday knotted it with Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid atop La Liga. All three teams have 60 points, 16 more than fourth-place Athletic Bilbao. In UCL play, Barca topped Group H head of AC Milan, Ajax and Celtic, scoring 16 goals and conceding five while compiling a 4-1-1 record.
Barca is riding a streak of six consecutive UCL semifinal appearances, yet last year’s 7-0 aggregate humiliation by eventual champion Bayern Munich and its tight La Liga battle this season have confirmed it no longer stands head and shoulders above all others. Still, Barca is Barca, and facing Lionel Messiand Neymar and the rest of its star-studded roster will stretch City as no other team can.
City midfielder Yaya Toure’s move between the clubs in 2010 and Pellegrini’s coaching stints in Spain with Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga add to the matchup’s intrigue.
“It is a good test,” Pellegrini said. “It is important. I don't think it is the most important thing because we are just in the round of 16. We can beat Barcelona and maybe in the next round you can have defeat. This club is trying to develop those areas.”
In his pregame press conference, Barcelona head coach Gerardo Martino emphasized possession as a key factor. He also sees qualities common to both teams. City features four Spanish players on its roster in addition to former Barca employee Toure.
“We don't have to prioritize either scoring or not conceding,” Martino said. “Obviously, we want to maintain possession, which is what we like and what benefits us, and if that leads to us scoring a goal then all the better. City are very similar to us. They are maybe a bit more direct but they are very good at keeping possession. I think the team with less time on the ball is the team that is going to suffer the most.”
Neymar had missed about a month with an ankle injury before returning with a goal in the rout of Rayo Vallecano but may not start against Manchester City. Xavi (calf) did not play last weekend and Jonathan dos Santos continues his long recovery from a knee injury.
The second leg is March 12 at Camp Nou.