Man City finally beat Barca as Guardiola's new team becomes true Champions League contender

Lionel Messi
Messi’s look says it all as Man City players celebrate a 3-1 win over Barca. (Reuters)

It isn’t often that you get to exorcise several demons on the same night.

In the first two seasons in which Manchester City reached the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League – after two straight failures to survive the group stage in the early years of the moneyed Abu Dhabi ownership’s reign at the club – it was summarily bounced in the round of 16 by an imperious Barcelona.

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Two weeks ago, City, playing the best soccer the club has ever enjoyed, traveled to Catalonia to take on its old tormentors again. It seemed like the time had come for the Citizens to compete with one of the game’s all-time great teams. But Lionel Messi, the sport’s best-ever player, ran riot and scored a hat trick as Barca sent City home smarting from a 4-0 whipping.

That game had been a homecoming for Pep Guardiola, who had built Barcelona’s world-beating and paradigm-shifting machinery, when he’d been promoted from iconic midfielder to legendary manager at his boyhood club. He was humiliated by the thrashing at the Camp Nou.

On Tuesday, Manchester City finally made amends for all those slights and insults and embarrassments, even though Guardiola believed it would take an almost perfect performance. At its impregnable Etihad Stadium, City overcame an early deficit to record a cathartic and well-deserved 3-1 victory. Ilkay Gundogan’s brace and Kevin De Bruyne’s free kick undid Messi’s go-ahead goal.

City hadn’t lost at home in a dozen games, dating back to March. But for the first half hour or so, it seemed like that streak would end and its run of futility against Barca continue. In a physical and breathless game, it was the visitors who played as if they were at home.

Luis Enrique’s side, however, was lucky to be spared a penalty in the 11th minute, when Samuel Umtiti hooked his foot around Raheem Sterling’s in the box. It was a clear penalty, but referee Viktor Kassai incomprehensibly gave the English winger a yellow card for diving instead.

Barcelona soon reaped the reward for its early dominance. In the 21st minute, Sergio Aguero had a shot blocked. Messi sent the ball forward to Neymar, who returned it to him as the Argentine ran away from several markers and stuck it away under goalkeeper Willy Caballero.

Barca had a flurry of chances to get the second but converted none. And then City took control.

Sergi Roberto sent an errant pass deep in his own third in the 39th minute, and Aguero picked it up and zipped it to Sterling. He squared to Gundogan for a simple finish.

Man City’s assault would keep up apace after the break. Right after the half, the Citizens were all over Barca. Another ball was won high – Guardiola’s plan to unsettle his old side was evidently to press its shaky back line with the soccer equivalent to a full-court press – and Aguero set up Sterling. But he took a heavy touch and couldn’t finish from the angle.

But in the 51st minute, the heretofore anonymous De Bruyne deposited a free kick behind a wrong-footed and culpable Marc-Andre Ter Stegen to give his side the lead.

City threatened again and again as Barca’s vaunted Messi-Neymar-Luis Suarez trident grew invisible. An Aleksandar Kolarov cross very nearly found De Bruyne for a tap-in. Quite against the grain, Andre Games then hammered a shot off City’s bar following a John Stones miscue in the back.

But that dizzying end-to-end phase, in which De Bruyne also kissed a shot off the post, would end in City’s security goal. In the 74th, De Bruyne sent Jesus Navas through with an inch-perfect ball. His cross to Aguero was tricky for the Argentina to chest in – with the ball, incidentally, caroming off his right forearm, held firmly to his chest. The rebound fell generously for Gundogan, who got his second.

Barcelona was beaten and knew it, never formulating a coherent response.

Guardiola, in the end, had vanquished the monster he had created. And in the process, he redeemed his new club’s battered honor. Aside from cheering his team’s third goal, he seemed to take no delight at all in it. He must know he has undermined his beloved Barca’s supremacy.

City, meanwhile, have become real Champions League contenders under Guardiola and now trail Group C leader Barca by only two points with two games to play. The larger takeaway, however, is its fresh ability to beat the likes of Barca. Because a win as comprehensive as this, against so laureled an opponent, signals Manchester City’s true arrival at the European summit.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.