Feeling they had a point to prove, Barcelona’s players delivered in style, leaving Manchester City bitter and bruised.
Advancing to the Champions League quarterfinals should be a formality after Lionel Messi scored a penalty kick in the 54th minute and Dani Alves added a goal in the 90th to secure a commanding 2-0 advantage over City on Tuesday night in the first leg of their second-round matchup.
Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas felt confident enough to deliver a message to his team’s critics: “They will have to shut up for a few days.”
It seems incongruous that Fabregas would have to be so defensive of Barcelona, given his team tops the Spanish standings, has reached the Copa del Rey final and is on the verge of reaching the Champions League quarterfinals for the seventh straight year.
“There’s nothing else you can ask for,” Fabregas said.
So much for the Catalan giants being a fading force. This win, against a team that seeks to emulate Barcelona on and off the field, exposed the gulf between them. And City, which has spent heavily to reach the knockout phase for the first time, couldn’t keep up with the elegant visitors.
“Maybe we had to prove a point in a way and I think we did it,” Fabregas said. “And I think we did it in a style.”
Even after Messi scored his 11th goal in 11 games since returning from a leg injury that sidelined him for two months, City managed to unsettle Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes more than had it with a full complement of players.
But City couldn’t score an equalizer against the run of play, and Dani Alves successfully completed a one-two with substitute Neymar in the 90th minute, sending the ball through Joe Hart’s legs for the team’s 113th goal of the season.
It was an unsettling introduction to the knockout phase of the competition for City, with Barcelona’s poise and panache enabling the four-time European champions to remain in near-complete control against England’s emerging force.
Rather than acknowledging the strength of the opposition, City manager Manuel Pellegrini questioned the integrity of Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson.
“From the beginning I could see the ref was not impartial to both teams,” Pellegrini said.
And Pellegrini felt that the referee was not up to managing a game of this magnitude despite being selected by FIFA for the World Cup.
A Swede lit up the night’s other game. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice, between goals from Blaise Matuidi and Yohan Cabaye, as Paris Saint-Germain won 4-0 at Bayer Leverkusen. The host’s Emir Spahic was ejected in the 59th for his second yellow card.
The second legs of both games are on March 12. No team has overcome a 4-0 deficit from the first leg in the Champions League.
City struggled all night to break up Barcelona’s flowing passing moves.
Somehow, though, the hosts emerged unscathed from their hesitant start and even produced the first meaningful shot of the match after 25 minutes when Alvaro Negredo curled the ball at Valdes.
For all Barcelona’s dominance, Hart had one meaningful save to make in the first half, pushing away Xavi Hernandez’s long-range strike.
“I thought we maybe gave a little too much respect to them in the beginning,” City captain Vincent Kompany said. “They were there for the taking.”
But City couldn’t and, after a quiet first half by his standards, Messi’s key contribution came after the break, scoring his 66th Champions League goal in the 54th minute, pulling him within five of tying Raul Gonzalez’s record.
Aside from Xavi firing over and Dani Alves skewing another effort wide, City looked more likely to find the net at times in the second half. Then a lightening move down the right flank was completed by Dani Alves, giving Barca a comfortable lead as it chases a first European title since 2011.