Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lionel Messi scores three as Barcelona smash Pep Guardiola, Man City 4-0

BARCELONA, Spain -- Three quick thoughts from Barca's 4-0 rout of Manchester City in Wednesday's Champions League clash at the Camp Nou.


1. Messi downs Pep again as Barca go five points clear: There were no favours for old friends at Camp Nou on Wednesday. At least not on Barcelona's behalf, anyway. Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, on the other hand, were the makers of their own downfall as a Lionel Messi hat trick and a goal from Neymar (who also missed a penalty) gave a flattering gloss to a 4-0 win that had at times threatened to be an even affair.

It's the second time Guardiola has returned to Barca since leaving in 2012 and it was the second time he's been humbled by his former pupil, Messi. The Argentine scored two against the Catalan's Bayern side and his hat trick here took him to six goals in just two Champions League games this season. Luis Enrique's men now have a five-point cushion at the top of their group with three games to play.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. City were good in phases but created their own problems. Fernandinho was at fault for the opening goal, Claudio Bravo was sent off on his return to Barcelona for handling the ball outside the area and Ilkay Gundogan's stray pass led to the third. By the time Jeremy Mathieu was sent off to even the teams at 10 men each with 20 minutes to play, the game was already up.

When Guardiola made his first Camp Nou return, with Bayern in 2014, he caught people out with a back three although in truth, the only people taken aback were his own players. His starting lineup on his second return also featured an element of surprise. Sergio Aguero was left on the bench, Guardiola explained, because he wanted more bodies in midfield.

Unlike 18 months ago with Bayern, his tactics were spot on. City were the better side in the opening stages. They spent large parts of the opening 15 minutes in Barca's half and could consider themselves unlucky when Messi opened the scoring in the 17th minute. Fernandinho slipped, kick-starting a Blaugrana move that looked to had stalled, and Messi nipped in, rounding former teammate Bravo and sliding the ball into the empty net.
Lionel Messi scores three as Barcelona smash Pep Guardiola, Man City 4-0
Despite taking the lead, it was shaping up to be a difficult night for the home side. Right-back Sergi Roberto wasn't deemed fit enough to make the squad and left-back Jordi Alba, who was also nursing an injury before the game, was taken off after less than 10 minutes. An even bigger blow came later in the first half when Gerard Pique picked up an injury after a late challenge from his Spain colleague David Silva.

Up against what quickly became a makeshift Barca back four, City created the better chances; in truth, they'd also created the opening that led to Barca's goal. Nolito and Gundogan both drew saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, with the stop from the latter's effort catching the eye in particular. There were also chances for Kevin de Bruyne while John Stones, unmarked, headed wide in stoppage time at the end of the opening period.

City started the second half well, too, with De Bruyne looking particularly menacing. However, the moment Bravo gave the ball away to Luis Suarez, the away side drooped. The Uruguayan looped the ball over his former teammate, who swatted the goal bound effort away with his hands -- outside the area. He was sent off to the backdrop of the home crowd chanting his name.

Messi soon added his second goal of the game, hammering past substitute goalkeeper Willy Caballero from the edge of the area. He then completed his treble seven minutes later when Suarez teed him up from close range, with Neymar scoring late on minutes after missing from the penalty spot.

2. Barca get by despite defensive problems: It was night to forget if you were a Barcelona defender, although not strictly for performance reasons as they managed to keep their second clean sheet in three European games this season.

Luis Enrique had confidently stated in Tuesday's pregame news conference that both first choice full-backs, Alba and Roberto, would be fit if selected. Either there was a late downturn in the duo's condition or the Barca boss wanted to keep Guardiola on his toes, not giving anything away too early. In the end, Roberto didn't even make the bench and while Alba did start, he didn't last long. He was soon signalling to the bench that his evening was over and Lucas Digne was brought on in his place.

Things got even worse when Pique was fouled by Silva. Despite making headlines off the pitch for his Spain retirement, he's actually been very good on it -- he said on Tuesday that he feels he's in the best form of his career after losing motivation and considering giving the game up in 2014. Losing him to a knock was a major concern for Barca, forcing them to face nearly an hour against the Premier League leaders with a back four comprising of Javier Mascherano (at right-back), Samuel Umtiti, Mathieu and Lucas Digne.

They looked under the cosh from City at the start of the second half but were given a reprieve when Bravo was sent off, easing the pressure. However, they still had to rely on some last-ditch defending and things got even worse when a rash challenge from Mathieu, his second of the night, saw him dismissed for a second yellow card.

Barca got by despite the various injuries but they will be praying that Pique, Roberto and Alba are not sidelined for a long time.

3. City have themselves to blame: Wednesday's clash was billed as the game to show how far City have come since Guardiola replaced Manuel Pellegrini in the summer. Three games against Celtic, Tottenham and Everton without a win would mean nothing if they could come to Catalonia and prove themselves. It was something they could never do under Pellegrini, losing all four of their games against Barca; it was one step too far for Guardiola at this stage, too.

Pablo Zabaleta said on Tuesday that even the perfect game may not be enough to beat Barcelona. City were far from perfect here. Perhaps the most frustrating thing, though, was that there were plenty of positives in a first half they arguably dominated. They created all the better chances including, ironically, the one which led to the opening goal. Unfortunately it was their imperfections that cost them.

First of all it was Fernandinho who slipped in the area, giving Barca a lead they hardly deserved. Messi capitalised on the error as time seemed to stand still for City's players -- not one of them reacted in time to prevent a simple goal.

It was Bravo's mistake that cost them dearly. His pass straight to Suarez was poor -- not the sort of error he made during his time at Barca -- and there was little choice for referee Milorad Mazic but to send him off when he proceeded to handle outside his box. At 1-0 there was still a chance of a comeback. At 1-0 with 10 men, it looked a huge task. The Chilean stopper was a pre-game talking point given his summer move from the Blaugrana to City and he will dominate the post-match debate, too. Just not how he would have wanted to.

Gluttons for punishment on the night, Gundogan then passed the ball to Suarez, who squared for Messi to tap home and Aleksandar Kolarov then hacked down Messi in the penalty area. Neymar missed from the spot, with Caballero making a fine save, but the Brazilian soon made amends, scoring his side's fourth to hand Guardiola his joint-worst defeat as a manager. City's negatives far outweighed their positives in the end. It was a long way from perfect.
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