It's a rough introduction to life in the knockout rounds for Manchester City, who, after navigating the knockout rounds for the first time in their history, are rewarded with a draw against perennial powerhouses Barcelona. But this isn't going to be a one-sided rout by any means -- cracks are showing in the Blaugrana armour, and City are establishing themselves as England's most dangerous attacking side. In other words, this is the draw that neither team wanted.
City had a rather easy time of it in this year’s group stages. Sure, they were thrown in with the current cup-holders, but neither Viktoria Plzeň or CSKA Moscow were ever going to be a serious threat (although the 4-2 win over the Czech side made for some rather entertaining viewing). Now, they’re one of the toughest draws for the first place finishers, a side capable of dislodging one of the favorites on their way to the quarter-finals – at least, they are if they put in a performance similar to the final hour of their win over Bayern Munich.
But City are capable of some not-so-impressive surprises as well. Away from the Etihad, there remains the risk they’ll fall to pieces, losing to the Cardiffs and the Sunderlands of the world. 6-0 victories over Tottenham Hotspur mean little if Manuel Pellegrini can’t land his side in the top four in the Premier League, and 3-2 victories at the Allianz Arena will be quickly forgotten if City can’t show their teeth in the next round.
Key player: Sergio Agüero
Or possibly James Milner, judging by their last match against Bayern Munich. But really, it’s gotta be Kun, with his twelve goals and four assists, the second best in the Premier League. He had six goals in Champions League play, even while sitting out the entirety of the final match. Agüero is a danger that could prove decisive for Manchester City.
This year’s edition of the Blaugrana remain a confusing and frustrating bunch. Just look at their league and UCL result doesn’t tell the full tale but the aura of invincibility that once surrounding this team has slowly been eroded over the past two seasons. While the talent is certainly there to make a run, it’s hard to see Barca as a potential finalist.
Barca advanced fairly easily through the group stage despite injury problems and a loss against Ajax. They topped their group with 13 points, going 4-1-1. It’s those injuries that have and will define Barcelona’s run in this year’s tournament. Both star striker Lionel Messi and goalkeeper Victor Valdes should be back well before the knockout rounds begin, but should either have additional problems, it could mean an earlier exit than hoped by the Barca faithful
Key player: Lionel Messi
I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Lionel Messi is the star of this team. He’s reached the point where even soccer loathing Americans are at least aware of his name. As important as he is to the ultimate success of the Blaugrana, the young Brazilian Neymar could be equally vitale. Last year team’s were able to suffocate Messi and expose Barca’s one-dimensional attack. Neymar was signed to help force defenses to pay attention to multiple attacking threats. The better these two stars work together, the farther Barcelona could go.
Key Matchup: Vincent Kompany vs. Lionel Messi.
City will be fine going forward when they get the ball, but for most teams facing Barcelona the challenge lies in keeping the tiki-taka brigade -- particularly Lionel Messi -- at bay. Messi should be fully recovered from injury by the time the two sides meet, and everyone will have to do their part in shutting Barcelona's ace down. In Kompany City have one of the world's elite centre backs, and the matchup between him and Messi could well decide the tie. As long as City also find a way to deal with Neymar. And Andres Iniesta. And...