Pep makes City believers
ON THE one hand, it had been a long time coming. Eight years since the Sheikh showered his billions on them and after playing almost 500 obsequious minutes against the team they desperately want to emulate, the club they dream of surpassing.
On the other hand, it was only 18 games into the enlightened and sometimes leftfield regime of Pep Guardiola.
The aim of the 2008 takeover was, according to then CEO Garry Cook, “not just to be better than Manchester United, but to be better than Barcelona and Real Madrid”. Leaving the meringues aside, for a wondrous 45 minutes on Tuesday night, Manchester City achieved their objective.
They out-Barcelona-d Barcelona. It was a slightly weakened Barca but take nothing away from City: they came from behind, they were denied a blatant early penalty and should have had another, and the MSN were all there. No longer awe-struck, City countered the master counter-attackers and beat them to the punch.
City fans woke on Wednesday morning wondering whether their old song from the cock-up days ‘We’re not really here’ still rang true. But they were there, alright, as a ‘typical City’ start would have reminded them.
Thirty-eight minutes in Barca had 72% possession and were one up through a classic Lionel Messi counter-punch. The game appeared to be going the way of the previous five encounters between the masters and the awestruck apprentices – a harsh lesson.
There were still gaps in the stands and queues outside the ground – a delay because chips had caught fire in one of the kitchens! It could only happen to City. Those inside were booing the ref and conspiracy theories about UEFA were gaining traction.
The Champions League anthem had received its ritual jeers and with the home side struggling to get a kick, another European evening had all the dispiriting hallmarks of ‘typical City’.
Pep needed something, City needed something and, for once, they got it – a suicidal pass across the penalty a la John Stones against Spurs – and City pounced. One-all just before halftime was a massive psychological boost and finally City had had a bit of luck.
To disbelieving eyes, they then began to dominate the second half, employing a high line and pressing Barca to win the second balls. And, lo and behold, they even played the long ball.
Always considered a no-no to Pep, this was not Sam Allardyce but what in Spain they call a Guardiolada – Pep doing what is least expected - and it worked. City got behind Barca’s own high defensive line and ran them ragged. For once in Europe, the crowd roared.
A fabulous end-to-end second half turned it into a great European night, the kind the Sheikh and his Catalan henchmen have craved but which had always eluded City.
Steeped in humourous self-deprecation for so long, fans had taken a while to believe in their sudden rise to become a domestic powerhouse but Europe they had not been able to get their parochial heads around.
Their continental cause has not been helped by a rash of UEFA rulings that seemed designed to stymie City’s progress – from petty fines for being seconds late for returning to the field, disdain for travelling fans to squad restrictions and a £49million fine among others.
An understandable Brexit-like reluctance to embrace Europe built up and even Pep’s call to “stop the feud” fell on deaf ears.
But Tuesday night felt like a turning point. The fans saw their City heroes take on Barca at their own game and beat them in gung-ho style. Last season they had somehow clawed their way to the semifinal but had gone down with a whimper. This was different.
This was Pep not Manuel Pellegrini. This was the universally-acclaimed best manager in the world, a jack-in-the-box on the bench, his football brain in overdrive, tweaking, urging, admonishing and scheming – a Napoleon directing the battle. His lugubrious predecessor would slink back into the upholstery when a goal down.
This was why the City bosses had courted him for two years, built the academy, sought his approval before buying players even when he was still at Bayern. They believed he was the man to take this great step, to get a team with an inferiority complex and a doubting fan base to cross the Rubicon.
They’re not there yet - they still have work to do to reach the knock-out phase - but this could well be a breakthrough. The raucous second half atmosphere showed that ‘Emptihad’ can be a misnomer for European games and the players’ response suggested they believed too.
For the first half, we heard the commentator say that Pep didn’t have the players to play the Barcelona way, but in the second they shut him up – at least the outstanding Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero did.
Raheem Sterling did too until he revealed a ‘hand grenade’ first touch when through on goal but he’s improving.
Stones hung in there too – you can’t do anything else under the obsessive, at times manic, ministrations of the manager who seldom sleeps and does not eat before a game. After this classic, he could have feasted and slept well in the knowledge that his first mission had been achieved.
He has spoken of how the lack of history in Europe is an impediment to getting players and fans on board and that he would need time. But three months since the season began he has written the first chapter in a new history.
He has instilled belief in a club that, when it came to European football really did feel ‘we’re not really here’. They are now.
Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne (right) celebrates his second goal against Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester on Tuesday.