City entered their second-leg round of 16 clash with Barcelona with the odds stacked against them. The trip to Camp Nou came on the heels of a lifeless 1-0 defeat to Burnley at the weekend in Premier League action.
In need of at least two away goals against Barcelona, City appeared to be all but toast before the second leg even kicked off.
An arduous task. An elite opponent. Another disappointing exit from Europe's elite club competition.
The match followed the script, as Barcelona downed City 1-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate. The Barcelona victory marks the club's eighth consecutive quarterfinal appearance, while City must now regroup after being bounced from the competition by the Spanish powerhouse yet again. City fell to Barca 4-1 on aggregate last season and endured a similarly dispiriting result this time around.
City's Champions League struggles against the Catalan giants highlighted just how important it is to take care of business at home in this competition. City waddled through the first leg at the Etihad, as they conceded two first-half goals to the visitors courtesy of Luis Suarez. During the opening act of that first leg in Manchester, it was evident that City would need a herculean effort in order to advance. It was also clear that the Sky Blues were the inferior side.
The second leg proved to be yet another grueling test for Manuel Pellegrini's team.
City were all over the place in the opening ten minutes. Neymar struck the post for Barcelona, while Samir Nasri managed to get into a tussle with Jordi Alba. Minutes later, Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta completed a quintessential Barcelona wall pass in a tight space inside the area before Messi blasted a shot off of Joe Hart.
It was only a matter of time before Barcelona's mesmerizing possession materialized into a goal.
On 31 minutes, Barca's Ivan Rakitic drew first blood. Rakitic applied the finishing touches to a brilliant counterattack orchestrated by Messi the magician. 1-0 Barcelona on the night. 3-1 on aggregate. Even with an hour of football remaining, the result seemed to be a foregone conclusion.
Within those opening 31 minutes, City had collected three yellow cards (Fernandinho, Kolarov, Silva) and had conceded a goal. It was yet another first half to forget for Pellegrini's side.
The bad dream was on the verge of becoming a full-on nightmare, as the Barca attack began to really take flight. On the brink of halftime, Suarez's delicate dink over the head of Joe Hart somehow stayed out thanks to the woodwork. Intermission could not come soon enough for City.
Samir Nasri was booked in the first half and was lucky to have not received a straight red from referee Gianluca Rocchi for a reckless tackle on Neymar. Jesus Navas replaced Nasri on the flank after the interval, but City also had issues to address in the middle of the park, as Yaya Toure was seemingly being asked to do too much in terms of his defensive duties.
Within the first three—yes three—minutes of the second half, Barca had already recorded several more scoring chances, but the aggregate lead remained just two for Luis Enrique's squad.
Joe Hart bailed out the Citizens time and time again, stymying Messi, Suarez and Neymar on multiple occasions. Kolarov, Navas and Milner swung in a handful of crosses, but none proved to be particularly menacing. Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to make a handful of rudimentary saves, but City's offensive prowess looked lukewarm.
Until the 78th minute, that is.
Sergio Aguero was taken down inside the area and won a penalty. Suddenly, Aguero was just twelve yards away from planting a seed of doubt inside the heads of the Barca players and the 92,000-plus fans in attendance.
However, Aguero's spot kick lacked conviction and was parried away by ter Stegen with relative ease. The chance had slipped through City's fingers, as had the game and any hope of advancing.
Hart, who logged ten saves and kept City alive throughout the match, commented on Aguero's miss:
"Sergio scores goal after goal after goal for us, and I can't say one bad word about him—he is a phenomenal player."
Aguero has scored so many meaningful goals for City, and it is difficult to place the blame on him simply for an average penalty kick. After all, Messi had an unimpressive spot kick of his own, which was stopped by Hart, to conclude the first leg. Having said that, the complexion of this second leg would have undergone a drastic change had Aguero found the back of the net with a quarter of an hour still remaining.
City had missed a golden opportunity, but that moment was monumental only because Hart had kept his team in the game.
James Milner, whose workmanlike play in the midfield was overshadowed by the dazzling Barcelona possession, talked about Hart's outstanding performance:
"He gave us that chance to still be in it and he deserves all the credit and words people will say about him."
Hart lauded Barcelona for the outstanding performance, but he expressed his disappointment in the final result despite his spectacular individual showing:
"We’ve gone out to a magnificent side but that’s the second time in two years, so it’s no consolation."
Still, despite Barcelona's superior play, City could have crawled back into this match had Aguero scored the penalty. But it was not to be. Manuel Pellegrini added his opinion on Aguero's failed conversion from the penalty spot:
"We needed to score two goals and we thought it might happen had we scored the penalty. That was a very important moment because we had 15 minutes more to play.
"Maybe we can think about what would have happened if we had scored the penalty but we didn't and finally they won the game."
So, maybe we can think about it. And while it will not reverse what transpired in the tie against Barca, it is an intriguing hypothetical scenario. Would City have placed Barcelona under siege? Would they have scored another to make it 2-1 on the night, forcing extra time and possibly even penalties?
Unlikely, but not unrealistic.
There is also the argument that Aguero's miss was only fitting given the reality of both matches, which is that Barca dominated and deserved to advance. The stats reflected that, as did the eye test.
Hart saved City time and time again, preventing Barcelona from building an unassailable lead. Perhaps Barcelona’s triumvirate of South American attackers proved to be too much to handle. Maybe City simply did not stand a chance against Barca in the first place.
But what if Aguero had scored?
While we must now wait a while to see City return to European action, they first need to take care of business on the domestic front and rediscover their form if they are to secure a place in the Champions League next season. There is much work to be done in the Premiership, as the title race and the competition for a place in the top four press on.