A match billed as a possible turning point in Manchester City’s history following their glitzy cash-laden rebirth fuelled by Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mansour’s heavy investment, ended in a comprehensive Barcelona win.
Barca, top of La Liga and in the Spanish Cup final, now look set to advance and make a mockery of the words of Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who said before the match: “This is the worst Barcelona team for many, many years, so City have a chance.”
However, this is City’s best team for many, many years too but it looks like that chance has already slipped away.
While the second leg at the Nou Camp on March 12 is not entirely a formality, City will have to overcome considerable odds, as well as the weight of competition history if they are to keep alive any dream of winning four trophies this season.
Since they first met English opposition in European competition in 1960, Barcelona have lost only two of 27 home matches with Liverpool winning both of them: A UEFA Cup match in 1976 and a Champions League Round of 16 game in 2007.
And only twice since the Champions League began 22 years ago has a side progressed after a home first leg defeat, a rare feat at the best of times and one City are likely to have to attempt without their coach Manuel Pellegrini on the bench.
The normally taciturn Chilean launched an astonishing verbal attack on referee Jonas Eriksson after the game, questioning his impartiality and accusing the Swedish official of deciding the outcome of the game.
City went behind when Eriksson awarded a penalty to Barcelona in the 53rd minute for a foul by Martin Demichelis on fellow Argentine Lionel Messi that appeared to initially take place outside the area.
Eriksson immediately dismissed Demichelis, leaving City with 10 men as Messi scored from the spot before Dani Alves added a second goal in the 90th minute.
Angry about the penalty and frustrated by conceding a second late goal, Pellegrini said, among other things: “I spoke to the referee at the end and told him he should be very happy because he decided the match.
“The referee was not impartial. He did not have any control of the game. I think it was not a good idea to have a referee from Sweden in such an important match.
“More important football is played in Europe than in Sweden so a big game with two important teams – that kind of game needs a referee with more experience.”
Eriksson, however, was refereeing his 22nd Champions League match, officiated at Euro 2012, is on the list for this year’s World Cup in Brazil and has been a FIFA referee since 2002.
Of more immediate concern to Pellegrini, rather than where he watches the game from, will be to devise a way City can turn this tie around after conceding two goals at home without scoring themselves.
One blessing in disguise is that he will not be able to play Demichelis because the defender will be banned for the second leg and Pellegrini’s risk in playing him backfired.
Demichelis has been one of the best defenders in Europe but is not the player he was and whether his lunge on Messi was just outside the box or not, he had no chance of catching his compatriot fairly.
Despite this setback, which could yet, though unlikely, still be overcome, Pellegrini and City have had a superb season and are still in contention for an English treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Capital One (League) Cup trophies.
They matched Barcelona well for periods of the game and although the visitors dominated the game in terms of possession and goals, City never made it easy for their opposition.
Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta told reporters afterwards that despite the win, the tie was far from settled and they would be taking nothing for granted in the second leg.
“The result is fantastic for us because after the penalty and red card, they came back at us strongly, but our aim was to keep possession and we did that and won. But we are not over-confident for the second leg. A lot can happen in 90 minutes.”
Manchester City should have their Argentine striker Sergio Aguero back for the second leg on March 12, but that may be a case of too late, too late after failing to capitalize at home.
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in second par)
(Editing by John O’Brien)