As Pep Guardiola took his seat for another round of questions about what it was like to face Barcelona again, whether this time it might be any different and if it was true Lionel Messi was superhuman, an event of a very different nature was taking place a few miles away at the club Manchester City always measure themselves against first.
It was certainly unfortunate timing on the part of Manchester United to call a simultaneous press conference announcing, with some very important-looking capital letters, their first Official Mattress and Pillow Partner. A king-sized bed from the range of Mlily, the latest addition to United’s list of sponsors, was lugged on stage. A succession of first-team players obediently went through their lines about how delighted they were with the five-year arrangement – “It’s very important for us, as players, to maintain high-quality sleep,” Luke Shaw observed – and back at City they could probably be forgiven for thinking an awful lot had changed since the great European occasions always seemed to be at Old Trafford.
This will be the sixth time in less than three years that City have faced the team Guardiola describes simply as “the best”. The problem for City is they have lost to Barcelona on every occasion and the aggregate result is 11-2 in goals, and considerably worse if bonus points were awarded for nutmegs. Guardiola expertly swerved the question about Messi but, then again, his views are already on record. “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him,” he once instructed the Catalan press corps.
It is against that kind of backdrop that City go into their latest assignment knowing another distressing result would leave them vulnerable, to say the least, in Group C should Borussia Mönchengladbach win their home game against Celtic and move two points clear in second position. The German club are languishing in 11th position in the Bundesliga and it would not be beyond City to save themselves at Borussia-Park on 23 November. A defeat on that occasion, however, would put City out of the tournament if Tuesday’s results go against them and, for Guardiola, that would be a personal ordeal when he has been appointed, lest it be forgotten, to deliver the trophy Sheikh Mansour and all his colleagues in Abu Dhabi want the most.
For now all that can be said for certain is City will have to play, as Guardiola said, “almost perfectly” to beat Luis Enrique’s side and, even then, there is no guarantee if Messi and Neymar turn on the style. “The two wide players from Barcelona are almost unplayable,” Guardiola mentioned, almost in passing. The guy in the middle is not too bad either. Between them, Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez have 126 goals in 169 Champions League appearances.
Guardiola’s chief tactic at the Camp Nou a fortnight ago was to keep the ball away from those three players for as long as possible, sacrificing Sergio Agüero’s place in attack so the team could, in theory, outnumber their opponents in midfield. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Guardiola bristled when he was asked if he had another idea this time. “I have an idea, yeah,” came the response, without choosing to expand. All he would divulge, answering a separate question, was “maybe we are going to change the way we press”.
Barcelona do have half their usual defence missing, owing to the injuries to Gerard Piqué and Jordi Alba, while a third defender, Jérémy Mathieu, is suspended because of his red card in that 4-0 victory and Andrés Iniesta’s absence automatically makes the midfield battle a good bit easier from City’s perspective.