Many Barcelona fans feared the worst. Manchester City was the top scoring team in European football, the team nobody associated with the Catalan club wanted to face. In the end, however, the trip to the Etihad Stadium ended up a satisfying success for the Blaugrana - and perhaps even a watershed moment for coach Gerardo Martino.
Barcelona brushed aside Rayo Vallecano by six goals to nil with an extraordinary exhibition of attacking football on Saturday, in what was the club's most dominant display of the season. Just two weeks earlier, though, Martino had left Camp Nou with jeers ringing in his ears following a surprise 3-2 loss to Valencia.
Barca's back line was all over the place that Saturday and the merchants of doom were out in force. If Valencia, a side struggling in mid-table, could convert three times at Camp Nou, what would free scoring City do to this Barcelona defense?
Martino must have given it plenty of thought as well and on Tuesday he had the answer: not very much at all. The Barca boss reinstated Xavi to his starting lineup after resting his vice captain on Saturday and the Catalans' passing philosophy frustrated City, restricting the home side to rare forays forward on the counterattack.
"The idea of playing another midfielder in the team was to have more possession of the ball," Martino said afterwards.
The plan worked. Ultimately, of course, it took a contentious penalty decision and a red card to alter the course of the game, yet that happened because Barca's ball players had stretched City and pulled opponents out of their positions. So when Andres Iniesta's inch-perfect pass found Lionel Messi, Martin Demichelis was left all alone and lagging in the slipstream of his compatriot. Never blessed with pace, the defender made a desperate lunge for the ball but took the man instead. The contact had started outside the area but continued inside. Penalty and red card.
Messi converted and Dani Alves made it 2-0 with a late clincher, while Barca also had another strike incorrectly ruled out for offside.
"I was told that Messi may have been outside the area, but I also saw that Cesc [Fabregas] was onside for the goal that was ruled out," Martino said.
"We came here to win the game - that was the only thing on our minds."
Barcelona deserved to. Even though the game's turning point was brought about by the intervention of Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson and City complained afterwards, the English club had no right. Barca was the better side, the team that wanted the ball and dominated the possession. The Catalans succeeded in making City (a team that has racked up 117 goals this term) look ordinary.
"We had the ball, we didn't give away chances - it was the script we planned and it worked to perfection," Cesc said after the match. "We are happy with the result and we showed we are difficult to beat. That's the way forward."
Victor Valdes agreed.
"We had the ball and we did well," he said. "The tactical plan worked for us and we are in the right tone at the moment."
So even though the match swung on a decision by the referee, Martino made the right calls and comes away with credit from what was probably the club's most difficult fixture of the season so far. He also answered the critics who had been out in force after some indifferent results have seen Real Madrid and Atletico draw level on points with Barca in the Primera Division title race.
The Argentine remained cautious.
"We are only 90 minutes into a 180-minute tie," he warned. Yet this one is all but over now and despite constant criticism ever since he took the post, Tata's team keeps coming up with the goods. Top of La Liga, in the final of the Copa del Rey and now with a foot in the Champions League quarterfinals after what was his side's finest win to date, Martino's credit continues to rise. Onwards and upwards.
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