Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic lobs Manchester City out of Champions League

PLEASE NOTE: Rakitic’s early goal gave Barça a 1-0 win on the night to extend their aggregate lead, while Sergio Agüero had a penalty saved as City chased

This article titled “Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic lobs Manchester City out of Champions League” was written by Daniel Taylor at the Camp Nou, for The Guardian on Wednesday 18th March 2015 21.51 UTC

The phrase in Spanish is ganar sin despeinarse. It means to win without even having to mess your hair up and, though Manchester City did briefly threaten to make something implausible happen, they were powerless ultimately to prevent this being one such occasion. They were outclassed for the most part and the only small consolation, possibly, is that Barcelona on this form could leave even the most distinguished opponents on their knees.

Are Barcelona back to their exceptional best? They certainly gave that impression at times on a night when the narrow margin of victory gave the occasion a slightly deceptive appearance. Joe Hart had to put on one of the best performances of his life to keep the score down and Lionel Messi must feel bewildered not to add to his personal collection of goals. Messi brought the crowd to its feet, bewitched us with his footwork, found gaps that didn’t seem to exist and danced past opponents in a way that took the art of dribbling to its highest level. Messi did everything, in fact, apart from beat the opposition goalkeeper.

Hart’s heroics earned him an embrace at the final whistle from Luis Suárez and the Uruguayan’s face was one of wonder. Incredibly, that succession of brilliant saves almost opened the way for City, too. They had their chance in the 77th minute when Gerard Pique brought down Sergio Agüero for a penalty. The Argentinian struck his shot cleanly enough but Marc-André ter Stegen dived to his right to keep it out and that was the moment to end any doubt about whether England would have a team in the quarter-finals.

The game continued where it had left off in the first leg. Barça wasted no time reminding us of their qualities. Neymar was bright, elusive, dangerous. Mostly, though, it was Messi and a beautifully choreographed show. At times the four-time world player of the year would just amble around, but those sloping shoulders and slow walk were a deception. Suddenly he would be on the ball, causing mayhem. It was a masterclass.

Barça’s chief tormentors made it an ordeal for Fernandinho. Neymar was the first to slip through Fernandinho’s legs. By the midway point of the first half, Messi had repeated the trick. The nutmeg is football’s most patronising putdown; it happened to a Brazil international twice in a quarter of an hour. They were taking turns to humiliate him.

Their football was dizzying at times. Messi looked absolutely determined to make up for that moment in the first leg when his stoppage-time penalty came back off Hart. A footballer with his gifts might have been aggrieved to see a couple of free-kicks curling on to the roof of the net but Messi was playing somewhere close to his exhilarating best and that, in football terms, can feel like a form of bullying. Messi tricked, harassed and menaced his opponents. James Milner dived in at one point and, lo and behold, another nutmeg left him on the floor. All that was missing was a wink, or pat on the head, as the perpetrator floated away.

By half-time, four different City players had been booked. David Silva had a genuine grievance after winning the ball from Messi but Samir Nasri’s hack at Neymar was an explosion of frustration. Nasri and Milner, City’s wide players, had been made to look painfully inferior compared to their counterparts in the Barça team. Yaya Touré was on the game’s edges. Nasri was removed at half-time and, defensively, City always looked vulnerable.

Suárez and Neymar both struck the post during the first half and Hart was exposed many more times. Neymar’s early chance came after Vincent Kompany dithered on the ball and Dani Alves nipped in to dispossess City’s captain on the edge of his own penalty area. Pellegrini’s decision to play Bacary Sagna rather than Pablo Zabaleta made little difference and wWhen the goal arrived, after 31 minutes, it was brilliantly constructed.

Messi, inevitably, was prominently involved. His curling pass to pick out Ivan Rakitic’s run was expertly delivered. Yet there was a lovely, deceptive touch, too, as he collected Jordi Alba’s pass and backed off Aleksandar Kolarov. Alba’s swift break out of defence had caught City on the counterattack. Milner doubled up on Messi with Kolarov but the little magician gives the impression sometimes he would not be fazed if there were half a dozen players trying to stop him. Messi simply kept advancing, looked up and floated the ball into Rakitic for the Croatian to control the cross on his chest then clip his shot over the oncoming Hart.

City’s only real chance in the first half fell to Milner, who was unable to get a clean connection on the end of Touré’s cross. In the second half they did at least start to play with more adventure. Agüero had a reasonable chance after the goalkeeper Ter Stegen tried to take the ball around him by the touchline and got himself into a mess. Touré and Kolarov both let fly from distance and at least there was something to encourage Pellegrini’s side. Their problem, nonetheless, was getting hold of the ball and not opening themselves to more damage being inflicted by Barça’s attacking three. Luis Enrique’s players kept the ball with so much more refinement than their opponents and when they did give up possession they hunted in a pack to get it back. Hart had to play brilliantly and City needed him to because otherwise this could have been a rout.

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