x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Barcelona defiant despite dip in form ahead of Manchester City clash

Both sides enter Uefa Champions League tie on back of disappointing defeats.

Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, right, looks on during a training session at the Sant Joan Despi Sport Complex on March 11, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos / Getty Images
Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino, right, looks on during a training session at the Sant Joan Despi Sport Complex on March 11, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos / Getty Images

The advance wave of 6,000 Manchester City fans arrived in Barcelona on Tuesday for the team’s first competitive game in Camp Nou on Wednesday night.

City quickly sold out of their allocation of 4,900 tickets ahead of the home leg, which they lost 2-0. Their fans have travelled more in hope than expectation, yet they also know that Barcelona are at their lowest ebb this season.

Saturday’s shock defeat at relegation-threatened Real Valladolid, combined with a win for their two rivals in Madrid, saw Barca slip to third place in the Primera Liga.

With the exception of Andres Iniesta, Barca played their strongest side, but their performance was insipid, the mood summed up by a cartoon in one Catalan daily showing several graves marked “Pride”, “Hunger”, “Pressure”, “Ambition” and “Intensity” on the headstones.

Barcelona fans are unhappy and few players have escaped the crossfire. Catalans, such as Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, have come under criticism for perceived mediocre performances, while the club is still reeling from the departure of president Sandro Rosell over the still-to-be-resolved issue of how much the club paid, and to whom, to sign Neymar. The mood has fed into results.

The four-time European champions who recorded three of those triumphs in the past eight years are closing in on a seventh successive Uefa Champions League quarter-final, City a first.

City manager Manuel Pellegrini’s side won all three away group games, including victory at Bayern Munich in their last European away game, but only twice in the Champions League has a side recovered from a home first-leg defeat to go through – and both of those were 1-0 reverses for Ajax and Inter Milan. Barca have lost just one of their past 25 European home games.

Barcelona’s under-pressure coach Gerardo Martino said yesterday: “Every time you lose a game, the next few days are always tough. We’ve spoken a lot, the players and myself. If there is one thing this team has, it’s self-belief. They know how to deal with this situation.”

It is a situation fans are uncomfortable with. Having lost one of their first 21 league games, they have now lost three of their past six.

Argentinian defender Javier Mascherano sat with his compatriot at the pre-match news conference and said: “We’re not dead”.

Like his manager, Mascherano was also adamant that the team had not been shaken by the defeat in Valladolid and that the players had been analysing the poor results in a different way from the media.

He said: “They want us to think that all is lost, but that’s just not so. The game against City is a good moment to show that. We have a lead and we will try and take maximum advantage of that. We’ll be true to our style of play and on Thursday we’ll re-focus on the league.

“If we get back to our best, we have a chance of fighting for all three competitions.”

Mascherano defended Martino, saying: “This is the first year I have worked with him. He’s a coach who has had to go through worse than two defeats in 15 days. I think we both come from somewhere that things are much more dramatic than here.”

Despite a weekend defeat of their own, City are confident.

“I am actually very excited,” captain Vincent Kompany said. “The whole team is the same. Nothing is better than chasing a lost cause. I think of Aguero, of Negredo, of Dzeko and that’s what I want to focus on. We have firepower up front.

“It’s a tough ask. This is one of the toughest places in the world to come and try to achieve something like this, but if anything should give you belief about chasing lost causes it should be that day against QPR.”

He referred to the two injury-time goals against QPR in May 2012 that made City the Premier League champions.

“I would say we come here and we have nothing to lose. It is all about that first goal. If we get the lead, the dynamics will change. A surprise could happen,” Kompany said.

Pellegrini, who begins a two-match ban on Wednesday for criticising referee Jonas Eriksson after the first leg, did not face the media.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE