Barcelona’s 1-0 Champions League defeat of Manchester City at the Camp Nou was tougher than it might have been, mainly thanks to City keeper Joe Hart, whose many saves kept the Premier League champions in the game if not the tie. Barça also hit the post twice and were unlucky not to win the game by a greater margin.
But all in all, despite the narrow scoreline, it was a masterful performance from Barcelona with Lionel Messi in particular shining brightly. The Catalans now head into Sunday’s El Clasico against Real Madrid in excellent form, with only two losses in 20 matches this calendar year.
It’s a far cry from the shambolic Barcelona side of earlier this season that was beset by talks of a crisis and rumors about Messi and manager Luis Enrique not getting along. Into the last eight of the Champions League, the Copa del Rey final, and with a narrow lead atop the La Liga table, there’s a growing sense of formidability developing around this Barcelona side.
It seemed fitting that former manager Pep Guardiola was in the stands at the Camp Nou to watch his old team take on City. Over the past couple of seasons, this team has had its ups and downs, by Barça standards at least. But Enrique seems to have restored a sense of identity that had diminished somewhat in the three years since Guardiola’s departure.
Manchester City certainly couldn’t lay a glove on them. Even when the Premier League side was awarded a penalty they couldn’t find a way through. Sergio Aguero stepped up to the spot and was duly denied by keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. City’s players, even the generally skillful David Silva and Samir Nasri, were reduced to making brutish tackles on the likes of Neymar and Messi. And while Barcelona was far from perfect, the Catalan outfit remained in command throughout the entire 90 minutes.
While it was disappointing not to see Neymar and Luis Suarez get on the score sheet, Barça rarely if ever looked in danger of surrendering a goal themselves.
Gerard Pique, so often at the heart of all that was wrong with the team’s defense last season, looks to have regained his form and stood tall in the center of Barça’s backline. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves also played well against City. Jeremy Mathieu slipped up a couple times, notably once early in the match when he nearly cost his team a goal, but Barcelona’s backline looked solid overall.
In midfield, Ivan Rakitic had another excellent game, scoring Barça’s only goal of the night and generally living up to expectations as the man slated to take over for Xavi. Apart from giving up the penalty, Javier Mascherano was effective as ever, while Andres Iniesta was his understated but influential self.
But heading into Sunday’s clash with Real Madrid, Barcelona fans will be most heartened by the performance of Lionel Messi. The Argentine maestro, who called 2014 a year to forget, looks back to his best. More than that, he’s playing with a smile on his face once again, something that we saw less and less of as last season wore on. And with Messi and Barça in their current run of form, it’s looking less and less likely that anyone in the Real Madrid camp will have much to smile about come Sunday’s Clasico.