IF THERE is one club, more than any other, that has inspired Manchester City in their quest for European success, it is Barcelona.
For a while now, City have wanted to be like the Catalan giants but, at the Etihad on Tuesday night, when they meet in the last 16 of the Champions League, they will want to beat them as well.
It brings to mind the old adage about imitation and flattery. While it would be naive of any club to replicate every last detail of a foreign model, City are sincere in their admiration for Barcelona, whose emergence as the pre-eminent side of their generation was thanks to the patient, holistic approach of those behind the scenes.
It is one thing buying a place at Europe’s top table, as Sheikh Mansour, City’s obscenely-rich owner, would be perfectly capable of doing. Remaining there is quite another. Since the introduction of UEFA’s financial fair-play rules, the English club have come to understand that only by manufacturing success will they be in a position to reproduce it.
That’s what worked for Barcelona under head coach Pep Guardiola, who guided them to 14 trophies in four years. He and many of his players – from Lionel Messi and Xavi to Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets – were products of La Masia, the club’s revered youth academy, an institution that has established not just a playing style and identity, but a culture and values to go with it.
City hope that their £200 million Etihad Campus, under construction alongside the stadium, will have a similar effect. With 16 pitches and a 7,000-capacity training ground on the 80-acre site, the plan is to engage with the community in a way that will spectacularly regenerate the east side of Manchester.
Behind the project are two men whose work at boardroom level helped to lay the foundations of Barcelona’s success. Ferran Soriano, the chief executive, and Txiki Berigistain, director of football, both worked closely with Guardiola in the years before it all came together at the Nou Camp.
If they had their way, they would reunite that great triumvirate in Manchester, but Guardiola is spoken for. By the time Soriano and Berigistain had ushered Roberto Mancini out of the door last season, Guardiola was committed to Bayern Munich, a club that was much closer to the finished article.
Forced to lower their sights, they plumped instead for Manuel Pellegrini, whose track record in Spain was impressive. There, the Chilean lifted two provincial clubs to unheard-of heights. With Villarreal, he finished second in La Liga – ten points ahead of Barcelona – and reached the Champions League semi-final. With Malaga, he finished fourth, and was denied a place in the Champions League semi-finals by two stoppage-time goals for Borussia Dortmund.
Between those eye-catching stints was a spell with Real Madrid, whose record-breaking 96 points in season 2009-2010 could not prevent him being sacked. That was an outcome he later blamed on the club’s piecemeal signing policy, which valued galacticos above his vision for the team. “I didn’t have a voice or a vote at Madrid,” said Pellegrini. “They sign the best players, but not the best players needed in a certain position. It’s no good having an orchestra with the ten best guitarists if I don’t have a pianist.”
During nine years in Spain, Pellegrini won only four of his 22 matches against Barcelona, but Guardiola was, and is, an admirer. He appreciates the way his more experienced counterpart stands for something – a philosophy, a principle, a playing style which, more often than not, is refreshingly positive.
“I am really impressed with him as a coach,” said Guardiola. “I would like to be like him. No matter which team he is training, the team is always playing the same way. His footsteps, his trademark, is always there. He loves playing football. It happened at Villarreal, Malaga and Real Madrid, and if I beat him all the time, it was because I was coach of one of the best teams in the world and in the history of Barcelona. For me it is always a pleasure to play against Manuel, because he loves to play the right way – he always tries to keep the ball, his teams always keep possession and try to play football.”
Pellegrini, though, is not a strict adherent of the tiki-taka style with which Guardiola was obsessed. In fact, his strategy on the pitch is where Manchester City’s character, for the time being at least, differs from that of Barcelona. At the Etihad on Tuesday, it will be only the visitors who play 4-3-3 with a “false nine” and a conspicuous shortage of players measuring more than 5ft 9in.
Pellegrini likes his teams to be a bit bigger and stronger, with four across the midfield and two up front, but he is renowned for his emphasis on attack. City scored 18 times in their six group-stage matches, and are more prolific in the league than any of their rivals. Against a team whose last European outing was a 6-1 rout of Celtic, there will surely be a feast of goals.
Whether City can score more than Barcelona is another matter. Impressive though they have been at home this season, they were outclassed there by Guardiola’s Bayern in October and outwitted by Chelsea only last week. Is there any reason why Messi cannot do for Barcelona what Eden Hazard did for Jose Mourinho’s side?
Messi’s goal against Real Sociedad last week, the 355th of his professional career, meant that no player has scored more for a single club in Spain. His recent return to form has been a convincing, some would say angry, response to suggestions that he had lost his passion for football at the age of 26.
Unfortunately for the little Argentine, his compatriot and best friend, Sergio Aguero, is likely to miss his visit. That would have added to the match’s strong Latin flavour. Quite apart from Pellegrini, City have four Spaniards in their squad, as well as several more signed from Spanish clubs, including Yaya Toure, who joined them from Barcelona in 2010.
So are City the new Barca? Not yet, of course. Not by a long way. Only after a number of years, when they have had the opportunity not just to reach the summit of European football, but to become regular visitors, will it be possible to make that judgment.
But who knows? If, by then, his work is done in Munich, it might be that Guardiola wants to try his luck in England. City would be well-placed to make him feel at home.