MANCHESTER CITY 1, FC BARCELONA 2.
Just how important Joe Hart’s injury time penalty save for Manchester City will prove remains to be seen following their home defeat by FC Barcelona in the first leg of their round of 16 Champions League tie.
City would have been almost certainly out had Lionel Messi scored from the spot to make it 3-1 to the Catalan club.
While City have an uphill struggle to win through to the last eight, their task is not quite so mountainous as it might well have been on a night when they were given a footballing masterclass.
And while City continue to dominate English football, they have yet to conquer Europe with the Champions League becoming their Holy Grail.
After Barcelona were beaten at home by Malaga last weekend, many thought it was further evidence that they may be a side on the wane.
That proved anything but the case at the Etihad Stadium where they made the English champions at times look pedestrian.
They were frighteningly good with two first-half goals from Liverpool old-boy Luis Suarez, making a triumphant return to the North West, putting Barcelona on the path to the next round.
While Messi and Neymar have been Barcelona’s talisman in the current campaign, £80million buy Suarez has been somewhat on the periphery….until this game when he took his season’s goal tally to nine.
It was a disappointing night for City whose manager Manuel Pellegrini said: “I think we played two different games. We played very badly in the first half, but in the second we did what we talked about before the game and we had two or three clear chances to score.
“Of course it is not the best result, but we still have a chance if we play in Barcelona like we did in the second half.
“Had it been 3-1, it would have been very difficult, but we must try to reverse what happened tonight.
“Joe made a very important save from an unnecessary penalty. We must control our emotions in the box. And we must not continue to make mistakes by having players sent off because it makes it difficult to play against Barcelona with 10 men.”
Barcelona coach Luis Enrique was delighted with the win but explained his side had played better this season.
There was also a word of warning as he said: “The tie is still very open, and would have been had it been 3-1 when you are playing against sides of this calibre.”
City’s manager surprisingly opted for a 4-4-2 formation with Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko up front while Fernando partnered James Milner in the centre of midfield in the absence of Yaya Toure through suspension.
The opening half, in which City allowed Barcelona to dictate the tempo, was embarrassingly one sided. In fact they were lucky to be only 2-0 behind at the break.
The breakthrough came after 16 minutes when Suarez turned Vincent Kompany leaving the central defender rooted to the spot before slotting home an angled shot past Hart.
Dzeko had a great chance to equalise, but headed narrowly wide before Suarez struck again after half an hour.
Messi’s magical play released Jordi Alba on an overlapping run on the left and he squared the ball to Suarez who, from six yards, glided a shot low in off the far post.
Barcelona ought to have added to their tally before the break as Neymar lobbed keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegan only for Pablo Zabaleta to clear off the line while Daniel Alves struck the crossbar with a cross-cum-shot.
On the stroke of half time, Samir Nasri forced a decent save from Stegen, but Barcelona had dominated play.
City began the second half playing more of an English style and Dzeko wasted two glorious headed chances putting one wide and directing the second straight at Stegen while Aguero curled another effort agonisingly wide.
Aguero eventually found a route to goal halving the deficit with 21 minutes left as he wriggled free before firing high into the roof of the net.
City’s hopes of further joy were effectively dashed in the 74th minute when Gael Clichy was sent off for a second booking. It was the third dismissal in as many matches against Barcelona.
Barcelona should have added to their goal tally late in the game when Hart denied Messi who also had a goal disallowed before the late drama of his penalty miss.
Zabaleta fouled Messi whose spot kick was saved superbly by Hart diving low to his left. The ball rounded to Messi who, with the goal at his mercy, surprisingly headed wide.
Remarkably it was Messi’s fifth penalty miss from his last 10 spot kicks for club and country as it provided City with a glimmer of hope for the return at the Nou Camp,