Guardiola praises players after momentous victory at The Etihad
UEFA Champions League, Group Stage
Wednesday 01 November 2016, 19.45 KO
City: Caballero, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Stones, Kolarov, Fernandinho (Fernando 60), Gundogan, Silva, Sterling (Navas 71), De Bruyne (Nolito 89), Aguero
Unused: Gunn, Clichy, Kompany, Iheanacho
Goals: Gundogan (39 & 74), De Bruyne (51)
Booked: Kolarov, Sterling
Referee: Viktor Kassai (HUN)
Man of the match: De Bruyne
City produced their best display yet under Pep Guardiola to record their first Champions League victory over Barcelona in six attempts. Ilkay Gundogan netteded twice, and Kevin De Bruyne scored a superb free kick, as the hosts came from a goal behind to all but secure qualification from the group stages.
Willy Caballero replaced the suspended Claudio Bravo, sent off in the 4-0 defeat at the Nou Camp a fortnight ago, whilst Sergio Aguero was recalled to the starting XI in place of Nolito.
City started brightly, and were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty after 11 minutes when Raheem Sterling was tripped in the area by Samuel Umtiti. Referee Kassai not only waved away the appeals, but incredibly booked Sterling for diving. It was a poor decision by the official, and the home crowd were understandably incensed. At this point City faltered, and Barcelona took full advantage, dominating possession and stifling the Blues' early momentum.
Guardiola's side struggled to cope with Barca's superior passing and movement, and it came as no surprise when Lionel Messi gave the visitors the lead after 21 minutes. A devastating counter attack saw Messi and Neymar exchange passes before the Argentine forward swept the ball past his compatriot Caballero. It was his 90th Champions League goal, and there was a distinct sense of déjà vu in the stadium as Messi once again proved to be City's tormentor in chief.
Barcelona had their own penalty appeal turned down, before the Blues levelled after 39 minutes, somewhat against the run of play. A loose ball by Sergi Roberto was seized upon by Sergio Aguero, and Sterling's clever cross was finished by Gundogan. It proved to be a pivotal point in the match, and the sense of growing belief, both in the stands and on the pitch, was palpable. Moments later Aguero almost gave City the head, but couldn't get a touch on Fernandinho's cross cum shot.
The sides went in level at the break, but it was City in the ascendancy as the second half began. Sterling hit the side netting when pehaps he should have done better, before David Silva, excellent all evening, was felled on the edge of Barcelona's box. De Bruyne stepped up and hit an unstoppable free kick past Marc-Andre ter Stegen from 20 yards out. The Etihad erupted in celebration, and the Blues sensed that a momentous victory was on the cards.
Further opportunities were squandered by De Bruyne, Aguero and Sterling, before Gundogan scored his second of the game after 74 minutes. It was the German international's fourth goal in his last two outings, and the ex-Borussia Dortmund man is quickly becoming an integral part of Guardiola's side.
The scoreline didn't flatter City, and in truth the margin of victory could have been even greater. It felt like a significant moment for the club in a competition that the fans have had a previously uneasy relationship with and, without wishing to be hyperbolic, there was a sense that City had finally announced themselves on the biggest stage.
Guardiola, understandably, was ecstatic with his side's performance after the game and heaped praise upon his players.
"Considering the short time we've been together, against the best team in the world, our victory today is so important. Now we have one more game to win," Guardiola said.
"Our [equalising] goal changed everything for our mood, the players realised the bad moment was over.
"Our players know that during 90 minutes you have bad phases, and we knew that time was over. It was a final for us, not for them.
"I think we showed many, many good things, I am so happy for the players, and they didn't deserve to go six winless.
"We got to know each other better tonight, and we're lucky that if we get through, we won't get Barca in the next round!"