Barcelona v Man City: English hopes hang in the balance
Manchester City can restore some Premier League pride tonight – but don't count on it
Manchester City take on Barcelona this evening as England's sole representative in the Champions League.
With Chelsea knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain last week, and Arsenal failing to get past Monaco on Tuesday evening, the Sky Blues will carry the hopes of a nation into the Camp Nou as they attempt to overturn a 2-1 deficit against the Spanish giants.
It's a huge ask for City, given their stuttering form this year, including Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Burnley, but manager Manuel Pellegrini believes a Champions League quarter-final remains within their grasp.
"This is a good opportunity for our team and the only way to prove it is to beat one of the biggest teams in Europe," he said at the pre-match press conference. "We will try to do our best with dedication and hard work. We are not going to play against an easy team but I'm sure that if the three previous ties with Barcelona were 11 v 11 it could have been different."
That was a reference to City's inability in recent clashes with Barcelona to finish the tie with eleven men. In last season's Champions League quarter-final it was Martin Demichelis and Pablo Zabaleta who were expelled, while defender Gael Clichy got his marching orders three weeks ago at the Etihad.
The Frenchman therefore misses tonight's return leg but City welcome back Yaya Toure, who sat out the first clash after being sent off in the group game against CSKA Moscow.
The veteran midfielder was in bullish mood when he spoke to reporters, attacking City detractors who are beginning to question Pellegrini's future after a run of just three wins in 11 fixtures. Dumped out of the FA Cup, failing to make up ground on Chelsea at the top of the Premier League and now on the brink of elimination from Europe, Pellegrini's methods are being questioned in some quarters – much to the annoyance of Toure.
"Football is like that," he declared. "Last year we were brilliant, and everyone was saying City are a top team in Europe, and all of a sudden we have some problems and we're the worst team in the world. We can deal with that. We all know what we have to do, the owners have spent a lot of money to make this one of the top clubs in Europe."
For Toure there is the added incentive of returning tonight to his old stamping ground, where he spent three years between 2007 and 2010. During this period, he won a Champions League winners medal, a Club World Cup crown and two league titles. "Of course it's a very important game for me and a very important game for the club, too," he said. "I'm happy to be back and we've got a good team that can produce a good work rate."
It's not just a question of City scoring the two goals that they need to overturn Barcelona's advantage; they must also prevent Lionel Messi adding to his tally of 75 Champions League goals, no easy feat as Martin Demichelis acknowledged.
"I'm one of his many admirers and even more so now that he's in excellent form. When he's at his best there is no way to stop him as he's so unpredictable," said Demichelis. "He's the best in the world."