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At the sixth time of asking, Manchester City have beaten FC Barcelona in the Champions League, and they did so convincingly. The blaugrana, who were chasing a fourth consecutive win on English soil, started to look comfortable once they had taken the lead after twenty minutes. But City struck twice on either side of half-time, and went on to take the three points that would have seen Barça through to the last sixteen.
Indeed, the home side were in far more desperate need of those points than their guests, and that showed in the immediate sense of urgency in their football. The home fans thought the early pressure had been rewarded when Samuel Umtiti appeared to bring down Raheem Sterling in the area. The replays suggested that the referee may have been right to caution the City striker for taking a dive – but it was a brave call.
Barça don’t do urgency. They rode the first twenty minutes of pressure, knowing their own chances would come. And when the first arrived … 1-0! City were left exposed by a perfect counter attack that was culminated by Neymar Jr picking out Leo Messi. With a sublime piece of skill along the way, the Argentinian tucked home his seventh goal of the Champions League campaign. So far, so good.
For the rest of the half, almost all of the meaningful action was in the City half, gallant defending and a little bit of luck keeping the sky blues in it. The 40th minute was the game-changer. An uncharacteristic Sergi Roberto error was lapped up by Sergio Agüero, and in a flash İlkay Gündoğan was tapping in Man City’s equaliser.
The goal brought the home fans back to life, and they were very nearly celebrating a second when Fernandinho fired just wide. City were on top again, and Luis Enrique would have been relieved that the half-time whistle blew when it did.
However, City were still on the front foot after the break, and had already come close twice before Kevin De Bruyne drilled a tremendous free-kick past Ter Stegen on fifty minutes.
It was developing into a hugely intense night of European football. Orchestrated by a highly vocal Pep Guardiola, City stayed in command. But while their chances went begging, it was Barça who came closest to scoring when Andre Gomes rifled the ball onto the underside of the bar.
The Premiership side held their ground, flatly refusing to allow the Catalans to recover their A-game, and as they came forward time and again another City goal was always on the cards. And so it was. With a quarter of an hour left, after Agüero had failed to chest in a Navas assist (a possible handball included) Gungodan was left alone with the ball at his feet and made no mistake in slamming home his second of the night.
Still on course
Barça were 3-1 down, and by this point the game was clearly slipping away. The minutes ticked by and still no response. And so it ended.
Like any defeat, it hurt. But a glance at the Group C table will make it hurt a lot less. Barça are still three points clear at the top and in a fine position to qualify. That moment will just have to wait a few weeks.
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