By Mike Collett
MANCHESTER, England, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Manchester City and Barcelona could easily have met in this season's Champions League final, Barca coach Gerardo Martino said on Monday when he described City as one of the "best teams in the world".
Martino, speaking to reporters on the eve of the first leg of their Round of 16 tie at the Etihad Stadium, dismissed the suggestion that City were copying his club's model.
"They do play a similar style to us, but they are not a mini-Barcelona or a mini-anyone else," Martino said.
"They may have a lot of Spanish players like (Alvaro) Negredo, David Silva, Jesus Navas and Javi Garcia but they have great players from all over the world like Yaya Toure from the Ivory Coast and Fernandinho from Brazil and the others."
City striker and Martino's Argentine compatriot Sergio Aguero misses the first leg through injury but Manuel Pellegrini's side are still a major threat.
"As I fan I will miss seeing Sergio Aguero play, but as a coach that gives me one less problem," Martino added.
"City are one of the best teams in the world and it is difficult for us to be playing them now when they are in such a good level.
"This could easily have been the final, and if we had to play them I would have preferred to play them later."
Barcelona have ridden out an off-field crisis in recent weeks that saw president Sandro Rosell step down following alleged irregularities in the transfer of Neymar from Santos last year.
Martino said it was up to his side to prove on the field they were still a force to be reckoned with.
"Of course City will pose us problems because they can attack in so many ways so we need to keep possession to stop them," he remarked.
"I think the team that has less time on the ball or possession will be the one to suffer, so it is up to us to keep the ball. If you don't have the ball there is almost no point in being here."
Barcelona, meeting City for the first time in a competitive match, have an outstanding record in the Champions League having reached at least the semi-finals for the last six seasons and winning the title three times since 2006.
Martino knows it will be hard for Barca fans to understand if they fail to advance to the later stages again, but stressed this was the "tightest tie" in the last 16 and City were arriving to play it "in a perfect moment for them".
City are third in the English Premier League but beat Chelsea at the weekend to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals. Barca are top in La Liga.
One man pleased to be arriving back in Manchester, albeit the blue half, is Barca's Gerard Pique.
The tall 27-year-old defender spent three years in Manchester across the city at Old Trafford and said he learnt a lot there, including new musical tastes like Oasis, before returning to rejoin Barcelona when he was 20.
"I came to Manchester United when I was 17 and United is still my second team after Barcelona. If I was ever to come back to Manchester, despite the success of City, I would still want to go to United, although I am very happy at Barca and have no intention of leaving," he said before focusing on the game.
"How are we going to defend against exceptional players like Negredo, Yaya, Navas, David Silva - they can all score goals from open play and set pieces.
"We have to try and control everything.
"Of course some things have happened at the club this season we could not control, but as players all we can do is go on the pitch and show the world we can still be the best against another great team like City."
Martino said he was delighted Neymar was "healthy again" after returning to action in Saturday's 6-0 win over Rayo Vallecano, but kept his match plans close to his chest.
"I am not prioritising keeping control or scoring goals, just avoiding defeat," he said. (Editing by Mark Meadows)