Jim White

Delusional City shown up by brilliant Barcelona

Jim White

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It is surely one of the unspoken truths of modern football that everybody loves Vincent Kompany. Even if he doesn’t turn out for your team, the Belgian is one of those players you can’t help but admire.

The commitment, the enthusiasm, the drive, the talent: this is a man with a surfeit of all the qualities you want in a footballer. The only thing he lacks, we discovered last night, is an active sense of proportion.

Interviewed by Gabriel Clark after his team had been given the most chillingly efficient lesson in the realities of European football by Barcelona, the Manchester City captain – the sweat pooling off his brow - was insistent that there was nothing to choose between the two sides.

“By no means we felt that they were superior to us,” he panted, the exhaustion of spending 90 minutes re-staging the Alamo evident in his eyes. “And when it was 11 against 11 I thought that maybe we had a little bit too much respect in the beginning because, you know, I mean they were there for the taking.”

After he had departed for a much needed lie down, it was left to Roy Keane, up in the ITV studio, to pour a bucket of cold reality over Kompany’s analysis.

“I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about,” was the Irishman’s brusque riposte.

And in truth, Keane had a point. By no means superior? City were given a lesson in the realities of Champions League football. Sure, they may well be a good enough team to be on course for a domestic treble. But what last night proved beyond argument is that they are nowhere near the finished article in Europe.

Far from Barcelona being vulnerable, Tata Martino, the visiting manager, must have taken one look at the City team sheet and rubbed his hands in glee. Talk about being there for the taking. The moment Manuel Pellegrini inked in the names Demichelis, Clichy and Kolarov to patrol the left hand side of the Etihad pitch, Barca were on their way to the quarter-final.

It wasn’t ill fortune, it wasn’t the conditions, it certainly wasn’t the referee that cost City the chance to progress (because let’s face it, even if the magnificent Sergio Aguero is back fit and firing in three weeks' time, they aren’t going to win 3-0 in the Camp Nou). It was simply that man for man their team was not as good as Barca’s.

You wonder where exactly Kompany thought the visiting side were there for the taking. Their goalkeeper is better than City’s, they have the best two full-backs around and they have a magnificent ball playing centre-back in Gerard Pique.

Even Javier Mascherano, at 5’8” apparently the stumpy weak link at the back, appeared absolutely immune to any fleeting City pressure. And in midfield and attack, well, on the sort of form they showed last night the Barca front six are peerless. When a team brings on a player as gifted as Neymar from the bench it is surely impossible to sustain an argument that this is a side full of holes.

City, by contrast, had a whole flank staffed by those who would struggle to find a place on Barca’s bench. Indeed it can be argued that even their more elevated talents are unlikely to ease their way into the visitors’ starting XI.

As good as Jesus Navas, David Silva and Alvaro Negredo are at unpicking Premier League defences, all of them enjoyed extensive careers in Spain without ever attracting the interest of the Catalans. While Yaya Toure, the kingpin of the City midfield, was deemed surplus to requirements at the Camp Nou and let go.

But it was Demichelis, Clichy and Kolarov who really showed up the difference between making up the numbers in Europe and being potential champions. Demichelis was horribly exposed for the first goal and, whether it was a penalty or a direct free-kick, correctly sent off.

Clichy looked about as comfortable as Boris Johnson on a zip wire as Neymar and Dani Alves skipped round him for the second goal. While Kolarov was played out of position in midfield, largely because the manager was unsure of his two defenders on that side of the pitch and needed reinforcement. It meant City’s potential to attack was compromised. It was not until Samir Nasri was called up from the bench that any attacking initiative was sparked from the left.

This is the thing about the Champions League: it is a mighty steep learning curve. This is the forum where weakness is exposed like nowhere else. This City team has never got this far before. They have never played a side as brilliant in possession as this. As Keane suggested in the commentary box, it is largely through defeats as chastening as this that progress is made.

And City will emerge stronger from last night. Pellegrini will have learned a lot more about his team than he will have done when they brush aside Premier League opponents with the ease of a small boy swatting a fly. And the wonderful Vincent might learn something too: that in some circumstances it is simply best to put your hands up and admit you were spanked.

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