Manchester City vs Barcelona | Tuesday 24 February | Etihad Stadium | 21:45
Manuel Pellegrini renews his great rivalry with Barcelona in what looks poised to be one of the stand-out fixtures in the competition this year. City are falling behind in their quest to retain their Premier League title, while Barcelona are looking ominous in their journey towards reclaiming their identity as the benchmark for European footballing excellence. Luis Enrique’s ideas seem to finally be taking root in the collective conscious of the Barca side, who at their best play without tactical entanglement and overly restrictive structures. This should prove an excellent case study for the variations between La Liga and the Premier League.
To Win (90mins)
Manchester City 23/10
Manuel Pellegrini’s side have suffered through injuries and the advent of the African Cup of Nations. Yaya Toure was sorely missed during the Mighty Elephants’ triumphant continental campaign and will be the driving force in the City midfield. Given the holy trinity that is Messi, Neymar and Suarez, Pellegrini will likely look towards stability throughout the spine of the side. Fernando and Fernandinho will probably form a solid base in front of the back four, while Pellegrini may opt for Milner ahead of Nasri. Kolarov and Zabaleta will have their hands full with the runs of Messi and Neymar, while Sergio Aguero will have to play the dual role of greatest goal threat and first line of possession. His ability to hold the ball up and bring Silva and Toure into play will prove a crucial aspect of the game, especially considering the ominous injury cloud he is constantly under. Vincent Kompany and Demichelis will probably start in the centre of defence, in what is Pellegrini’s strongest central defensive partnership.
What can one say about Lionel Messi? Ever since Cristiano Ronaldo was voted the best player in the world, the diminutive Argentine dynamo has seemed hell-bent on reclaiming his lost throne. Neymar has also found his groove at the club, creating a wonderful Brazil-Argentine harmony that defies the acrimony between the nations. Andres Iniesta has been in the odd position of being rotated in the squad, but surely Enrique will turn towards him in this crucial fixture. Rakitic and Busquets will solidify the midfield, hoping to form a base for the South American attacking trio. The choice to select Pedro ahead of Suarez against Levante worked in motivating the Uruguayan star, who ended up scoring a spectacular volley upon coming off the bench. Suarez will surely start considering his experience in the Premier League and the fact that City have battled for consistency in selection in defence. I think that we may be witnessing the beginning of a second generation of Barcelona greatness, one cultivated in Spain, but ultimately defined by South American flair.
VERDICT: Barcelona 11/10
This one has 2-2 written all over it, especially given the defensive frailties of both sides, but perhaps the better value lies in backing the away side. City will be forced to take the initiative ahead of a daunting trip to the Nou Camp, which should open the door for Messi and Co. to steal a win in what could be a high scoring fixture. Over 2.5 goals is also available at 7/10, decent value when taking into consideration the attacking talent on display.