Not many games whet the appetite quite as much as Barcelona vs Manchester City, in the Champions League this month.
This column recently outlined why an important era is approaching for the Catalan club as their dominant decade gives way to uncertainty. Can they remain at the very top when clubs fuelled by petrodollars are starting to accelerate?
Barcelona got past Paris St Germain last season but the French club with the Qatari funding weren’t yet up to full speed.
But how fast are Manchester City going and where?
The Champions League game may provide more evidence that their defeat against Chelsea, the big Premier League match of this season, is a turning point. For that defeat we should give Mourinho the lion’s share of credit and be cautious with blame. Sometimes you need to acknowledge a job brilliantly done, so tidily that even his unnecessary dose of post-match nonsense (“we are not aiming to win the title”) could not take the shine off the victory and performance.
Mischievous but more realistic was Mourinho’s pre-match questioning of financial fair play. It’s actually reasonable to suggest UEFA will need to properly implement FFP, not just threaten clubs with it. And if a club’s stadium (once built for the Commonwealth Games and practically donated to the football club) can now be sponsored by an UAE airline for a vast fee, UEFA might want its FFP loopholes to be a little tighter. Eyebrows have been raised sky-blue high over City’s alleged circumnavigation of the rules.
But in the dugout Manuel Pellegrini is no Roberto Mancini. He appears to have the temperament to cope with setbacks, the temperament to see Manchester City for what they should be, world-beaters. How will the Chilean respond? Such a defeat might have destroyed the temperamental Mancini – interesting how quiet his many former supporters in the UK media have gone in recent months, I didn’t see many of them joining me in strongly criticising his petulant and pathetic handling of the Carlos Tevez affair back in 2011.
So can the more mature and considered Chilean achieve their biggest victory yet? Can they demonstrate over two legs against Barcelona the power has changed in European football, rather than hint that it’s starting to change?
The world looks forward to finding out and it remains a particularly fascinating transition for City – from defiance in decades of miserable failure to a potential future as high-financed high achievers. The fans still haven’t got to grips with it, a big part of them relished the underdog status. But wouldn’t they just love to turn it on against the tiki-taka crew.
There are some concerns for City ahead of the match, and not just the Chelsea scoreline.
How much will they miss one of their three truly great players, Sergio Aguero? I’m not saying he’d have changed the outcome against Chelsea, I once even saw him have a bad game against them. But when fit this season he’s somehow found another level of excellence.
Is Yaya Toure having a dip? Probably the most influential and important player in the English Premier League he can’t be expected to dominate in 60 game per season. over the last few games he hasn’t looked 100% fit and sharp and at his near-unstoppable best. They missed the injured Fernandinho hugely against Chjelsea too, with the Brazilian having now found his feet on English soil.
Then there is the defence, not exactly the strongest part of this City team. In Zabaleta, the third of their outstanding trio, they have the world’s best full-back. Kompany and Kolarov are both strong assets too but as a defensive unit they looked a class below Chelsea. And is that acceptable for a club with such weighty financial input from Abu Dhabi?
You wonder how important Joe Hart might be in this. Barcelona are likely to create chances, as are City, but what form will the England keeper be on? A chance for redemption for the shaky finale against Real Madrid last season that ultimately led to elimination?
I’ve not wavered from the belief that Manchester City, once a staple part of a comedian’s diet, should be the best team in the world.
When the money first started pouring on it wasn’t clear just what progress Bayern were making, and they are currently the European Champions, with a bright future. A role model for most big clubs. But this season under Pellegrini City have showed they can live with, and actually beat the best, by overcoming Bayern in the group stages.
Now for Barcelona.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport