It was a thrilling, breathless night, full of everything that football at its highest level should be, and when it was all done Manchester City could reflect on the kind of result they have craved since the bags of gold arrived from Abu Dhabi and the story of this club changed forever. They had not only beaten Barcelona but they had done it the hard way, coming from behind, and they have spent so long waiting for a victory of this magnitude it automatically takes its place as their most gratifying in the Champions League to date.
Any success against a side featuring Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez has to be cherished but perhaps the most satisfying part for Pep Guardiola’s team is what it showed about their competitive courage and the shift in mentality compared with City’s previous attempts to overcome perhaps the most beautifully constructed club side there has ever been.
City played with a level of self-belief that has never been witnessed in these assignments. No one could accuse them of being cowed in the presence of the team Guardiola described as “the best” and there has never been a night when so many of their A-listers have reached the point of maximum expression all at once. Kevin De Bruyne can reflect on an evening when he outshone a four-time Ballon d’Or winner. Ilkay Gündogan, with two of the goals, had his finest game yet in City’s colours and, finally, after six attempts, this fiercely ambitious club knows what it is like to confront Barcelona and do the tormenting rather than the other way around.
True, there were long, difficult periods when Messi, Neymar and Suárez bewitched them with their speed, thought and movement. Nicolás Otamendi still does not seem to comprehend that the most accomplished centre-halves stay on their feet and Guardiola’s first comment in his post-match press conference was to find fault with the team’s first-half display. Yet City had their own attacking trident in De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Agüero and, ultimately, those three wore down their opponents. De Bruyne’s free-kick to make it 2-1 was a peach but his through ball in the buildup to Gündogan’s second goal was another reminder of his exquisite ability. Raheem Sterling added his own menace and, as a test of nerve, Guardiola’s men passed with distinction.
More than anything, they did not seem afflicted by the inferiority complex that has shaped previous encounters. They rode their luck at times, most notably when the ball came off Agüero’s hand before the final goal. There was a period in the first half when the game threatened to run away from them – “we were really in trouble,” Guardiola reflected – and Messi’s goal, following a stunning breakaway, was not the only time the home side left the suspicion they still lack a certain amount of defensive knowhow.
Yet City deserve immense acclaim for refusing to buckle and they can also look back to the moment, 11 minutes in, when the Hungarian referee, Viktor Kassai, made the kind of mistake that felt incongruous for a night of football royalty. Kassai was badly mistaken to think Sterling had tried to deceive him into awarding a penalty and City would have gone away with legitimate grievances if they had lost the game from that point.
Television replays confirmed Samuel Umtiti had clamped his left foot on Sterling. It was a clear penalty and for a while the soundtrack to the night was of raucous disgruntlement. Too much was happening, however, for the crowd to linger on the injustice and, if nothing else, that incident might also have encouraged the home side to think Barcelona were vulnerable at the back.
Guardiola had talked beforehand about Barça’s habit of “provoking mistakes” from their opponents but now it was happening the other way around, too.
“In the first 38 minutes we saw the best team in the world,” Guardiola said of his former club. But everything changed with the calamitous pass that Sergi Roberto subsequently aimed across his own half. Agüero was first to the loose ball, turning it to the right for Sterling to drive into the penalty area. Sterling decided against shooting and his pass across the six-yard area was weighted perfectly for Gündogan to turn in the equaliser.
Suddenly the home side looked reinvigorated, with De Bruyne becoming increasingly influential after the interval. The Belgian’s free-kick was the outstanding moment of the night, aimed expertly into the top corner of Marc-André ter Stegen’s goal, and he was superb during those exhilarating passages when City attacked from every angle and there was the rare sight of a Barça team looking rattled in the extreme.
There were still plenty of occasions when City’s opponents showed, in flashes, their attacking brilliance and an almighty scare for the home team when John Stones and Otamendi both reminded us of their occasional frailties only for André Gomes, teed up by Suárez, to thud his shot against the crossbar. That, however, came at a point of the game when City were creating chance after chance. Agüero was fortunate not to be penalised for the handball that left Gündogan with a simple finish for his second goal but it was also true that Barça suffered during the second half in a way that is seldom seen. That alone made it feel like a special occasion.
The downside for City was Fernandinho’s injury and they will have to learn they cannot defend as recklessly as they did for Messi’s goal, stemming from an attack of their own that left seven of Guardiola’s players, including three-quarters of their defence, stranded at the other end of the pitch. Overall, however, there was the sense that City had reached new heights. They looked like a team with nothing to be afraid of.