With Barcelona's visit to the Etihad on Tuesday, Manchester City make their debut in the knockout rounds of the modern Champions League. Difficult draws are nothing new to City's players, who have been grouped with Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid over the past few seasons.
"I think Barcelona will be very concerned that they have drawn us," Manuel Pellegrini said after UEFA paired the clubs in December. "They are not the team of two years ago."
On pure technicality, City's manager is correct. However, Barcelona still come to the Etihad as Spanish champions and winners of Group H. Defeating the Blaugrana would trouble every non-Bayern team across the globe, but Pellegrini and Co. do have some reasons for confidence.
Home is where the wins are
Finishing behind Bayern Munich in Group D ensured a group-winning side would meet City in the round of 16. On a more optimistic note, it allows Pellegrini's side to start the tie where they are most comfortable: at the Etihad. Only two defeats--against Bayern in group play and Chelsea in the league--have occurred in the comfort of Etihad Stadium.
City's biggest advantage Tuesday comes in the form of Barcelona's away European struggles. Despite reaching the Champions League semifinal every season since 2007, Barça rarely play to their usual standard away from home. Since the '09-'10 season, ten of Barça's knockout-round ties have began away from the Camp Nou, but the Blaugrana only won two of those opening legs: Real Madrid in 2011 and Bayer Leverkusen in 2012.
Barcelona generally recover from away disappointment to put on great displays at the Camp Nou. The gap between the two legs, though, gives a bruised City squad a chance to fully recover, with Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho nearing fitness. More schedule relief also comes with the fixtures that surround the second leg on March 12:
Aston Villa Wigan at home and a trip to Hull. (As commenter Graham Ward notes, City's FA Cup win over Chelsea forces the Villa match to be rescheduled.)
If Fernando Torres can apply the dagger to Barça at the Camp Nou, surely anything can happen if City achieve a positive result in the first leg.
Yaya Touré is a battleship with legs
Much of the pre-match discussion will center on Barcelona's famed passing game and how to neutralize it, but City have a formidable weapon of their own in midfield: the former Barça man, Yaya Touré. Barring a miracle recovery for Fernandinho, Touré will be tasked with much of the legwork in stopping Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.
Bayern's destruction of Barcelona in last season's semifinal showed, more than any other defeat Barça have suffered in recent history, that even the most intricate passing game can be shut down with supreme physicality. Javi Martinez and Bastian Schweinsteiger out-muscled their Barcelona counterparts on the way to a 7-0 aggregate victory.
As one of the most imposing midfielders in Europe, Touré will enjoy a considerable size advantage over Barcelona's midfielders. The game plan for many teams against Barcelona requires a compartmentalization of the midfield--one attacks, one destroys, but the roles remain separate. It will be much different for City, because Touré seamlessly transitions between the different archetypes of central midfielder.
While not a La Masia graduate like opponents Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, Touré would still fit into his former midfield, as his passing percentage hovers around 90% this season. He also does things like this:
City's only Yaya Touré problem is that they cannot clone him to replace the injured Fernandinho, who will miss Tuesday's match barring a miracle recovery.
City have a solid array of attacking midfielders
City make up for the lack of depth in central midfield with an impressive group of attacking midfielders: David Silva, Jesús Navas, and Samir Nasri. Pellegrini obviously prefers a two-striker system, meaning it's very possible that one is left out, but the talent in City's attacking band of midfielders provides a notable challenge for Barcelona manager Tata Martino.
City's quickest threat to Barça will be Navas down the wing. Jordi Alba and Dani Alves are both more than comfortable in attack, and Alves in particular usually operates miles away from where any traditional right-back would play. Navas, bought from Sevilla last summer, adds much-needed pace out wide for City. The winger was purchased for moments exactly like this: when the center of the field is packed, City finally have someone sprinting down the flank.
Anyone who has watched City knows the creativity Silva brings. His drifting movement gives Barça a particular challenge: how far, if at all, does the full-back track him on the way inside? Silva's infield movement, especially when combined with an opposite movement from a striker or an overlap from the full-back, will create advantageous situations when City have some possession.
While certainly a different player than Thomas Müller, Nasri could play a similar role to the one Müller played for Bayern against Barcelona last season. Müller aided Mario Gomez in containing Sergio Busquets, and occasionally was even the furthest man forward while Barça were in possession. Considering he's just returned from an injury, Nasri might come off the bench, but the Frenchman's ability to play centrally can be a huge positive for City.
It doesn't take Superman at striker against Barça
Only a fool would argue that Sergio Aguero missing a match helps Manchester City. It doesn't, though, automatically disqualify City from advancing, as the remaining forwards are more than capable of putting in a team effort.
Aguero scored once every 64 minutes he played in Group D, placing him in a tie with Lionel Messi for third in the competition. Without his six goals, City would still sit in a tie for the sixth-highest scoring squad in the Champions League.
Scoring might not even be the biggest worry for City's forwards in this match: defense could take precedence, in effort to deal with Barça's passing game. Mario Gomez spent most of Bayern's textbook thrashing of Barcelona attempting to stay goal-side of Busquets, looking to cut off the Catalan's distribution.
One thing the healthy forwards do have: height. Edin Džeko, Álvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic are all at least 6-foot-1. Barça's generally diminutive lineup will be vulnerable on crosses and set pieces, especially when Touré and Kompany come forward also.
Jovetic's FA Cup goal on Saturday signified a further return to form after injury. The ex-Fiorentina man also brings positional variety if Pellegrini does indeed go 4-4-2 on Tuesday. Jovetic moves into wide areas nicely, and it would be disappointing to see the versatile striker be left out of a possible two-striker formation.
As long as the chosen striker(s) can put in a shift defensively and not embarrass in front of goal, Aguero's injury should not panic City fans nearly as much as Fernandinho's.
Maybe City can rest for Wembley
Even with the reasons for hope, City's task remains extremely challenging. Led by Lionel Messi, Barça still score goals that look impossibly skillful and hold the ball long enough for viewers to cook entire meals without missing a possession change. City possess the quality to beat Barcelona; it's just a matter of everything aligning correctly for Pellegrini's side.
If things get rough on Tuesday, City fans should claim that Pellegrini is just resting the team for the League Cup Final against Sunderland.