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The Champions League is back as we're now into the knockout stages. Goal's Brendon Netto analyzes Barcelona's visit to Manchester City..

 Brendon Netto
 COMMENT | Champions League
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The first leg between Manchester City and Barcelona is one of the most mouth-watering fixtures of the Round of 16 in the Champions League. The Premier League club have been devastating in attack this term and are fresh from their convincing FA Cup triumph over Chelsea. However, Barcelona are currently playing the best they have all season having dismantled Rayo Vallecano 6-0 over the weekend.


FORMATIONS AND TACTICS

How City Set Up
4-2-3-1
How Barcelona Set Up
4-3-3
Manchester City have grown accustomed to flooding forward and ripping teams apart this season but they have been known to adopt a more conservative approach against the big sides. They showed a pragmatic side to their play against Chelsea on Saturday but more importantly, their performance away to Bayern Munich earlier in the season was exceptional.

The Manchester club did well to beat the Bavarians 3-2 having set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation as is likely to be the case when they take on the Catalans.

With Sergio Aguero injured, Alvaro Negredo may lead the line on his own while David Silva plays in the hole behind him. From there, the Spanish playmaker can pull the strings in attack while not having to track the frequent runs of Dani Alves if he were to play on the left.

Instead, the industrious James Milner would be the ideal man to keep tabs on the marauding Brazilian full-back. However, his suspension means that Samir Nasri who has just returned from injury will have to make do, unless Manuel Pellegrini chooses to play Aleksandar Kolarov as a winger. Jesus Navas' pace could be handy on the break as he patrols the opposite flank and especially useful as an outlet should Barcelona enjoy lengthy spells of possession.

Yaya Toure and Javi Garcia will anchor the midfield should Fernadinho fail to recover in time for this fixture. The back four should try to stay compact with the full-backs wary of Barcelona's pace in wide areas. 

City are likely to maintain their shape and attack swiftly when they win possession. However, if a quick break isn't an option, they could be inclined to keep hold of the ball and try to work an opening with a more cultured approach. The work-rate of their wide players and the ability of Silva and Negredo to combine could be vital.
Gerardo Martino tweaked Barcelona's style of play when he arrived this season, choosing to be slightly more direct and dialing back the intensity with which they pressed the ball to win possession.
 
However, they have reverted to something reminiscent of their play under Pep Guardiola of late and it's coincided with them playing arguably their best football this season.

Messi seems to be back in full flight and will operate as the false nine while being supported in attack by Pedro and Cesc Fabregas. Neymar has just returned from injury and is likely to start on the bench alongside Alexis Sanchez.

The wide players will tuck inside and make diagonal runs in behind the defense while allowing Alves and Jordi Alba to overlap them from their full-back positions.

Andres Iniesta has played himself back into form recently and should take his place beside Xavi Hernandez in midfield while Sergio Busquets sits deep in order to protect the center-backs and also plug the gaps in behind the full-backs.

Messi will drop deep on occasion to link-up with the midfield. At times, he'll try to weave his way through the defense and take advantage of the gaps that open up.

Xavi is the chief playmaker and his vision and range of passing allow him to dictate play exceptionally while Iniesta gets involved with the more intricate play in and around the penalty area where he can link-up with the likes of Messi and Fabregas.

Gerard Pique's pace to track forwards looking to break on the counter is essential while Puyol organizes the back four and will be crucial when it comes to defending set-pieces and tussling with Negredo.


ANALYSIS

Strengths –


Manchester City: City's strike-force has been phenomenal and even with Aguero injured, they have a prolific striker in Negredo available while possessing the luxury of Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic on the bench. Manuel Pellegrini has come in and promoted an exciting brand of football, making City's style of play arguably the most attractive in the Premier League. Their new found dynamism in attack is second to none while the sheer strength and class of their midfield is intimidating. They can play beautiful football but are also capable of mixing it up.

Barcelona: The 'holy trinity' of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta aren't as vital as they used to be and that's a good thing. The likes of Fabregas, Pedro, Neymar and Sanchez have grown in stature and everyone pulled their weight when Messi was out injured. Their 'tiki-taka' style of play is easily the best feature of their game but relentless pressing and closing down is what makes it feasible. They also have two of the most adventurous and effective full-backs in world football which ensures that they maintain width in attack despite overloading the central area.

Weaknesses –

Manchester City: The absence of Aguero is a blow for the hosts but perhaps not as big a blow as that of Fernandinho's. The Brazilian has been the ideal midfield partner for Toure and City will certainly miss his energy. Meanwhile, their defense has been suspect all season. Pellegrini seems to prefer Martin Demichelis alongside Vincent Kompany but the Argentine has never looked convincing. The organization at the back hasn't been good and there's definitely scope for Barcelona to penetrate that back-line.

Barcelona: They are susceptible to the counter-attack. Their full-backs can be caught up the pitch and the space in behind them can be exploited. They are also guilty of not having a plan B, something Martino has tried to rectify but hasn't had the players to do so. Their defense has never been very comfortable with dealing with aerial assaults and they often concede goals from set-pieces - an area where City will clearly have the advantage.

City Key Player: Yaya Toure
Barcelona Key Player: Lionel Messi
Yaya Toure will be up against his former club and will probably be the most important for his current one in this fixture. With Fernandinho likely to be unavailable, Toure will need to have a huge game as he tussles with Barcelona's star-studded midfield.

The colossal midfielder has been paramount to City's success over the last few years but has flourished in this season in particular, scoring 15 goals already and providing 6 assists.

The Ivorian finds the perfect balance between brute force and elegance, rendering him the complete package and one of the most formidable midfielders in the modern game.



Messi finally relinquished his strangle-hold on the Ballon d'Or this year after enduring a dip in form and a lengthy spell on the sidelines through injury.

Unfortunately for City, Messi appears to have found his stride just in time for this fixture, scoring 6 goals in his last 5 games. The players around him have grown in stature but crucially, he continues to be integral to the team and remains their talisman.

His phenomenal gift to dribble with the ball at pace can unlock any defense while his link-up play and goal scoring prowess makes him so effective.


Who do you think will win this tie? Leave your comments below or discuss with the writer on Twitter @BrendonNetto.

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