PSG expose Barcelona’s lack of self-belief

Barcelona and PSG are rightly hailing the decisive impact a footballing force of nature in the form of Lionel Messi made in Wednesday night’s match, but the Catalan side should not let the uncomfortable questions about their self-belief that arose from their performance to be buried under the adulation. Given the success Spain have had in fielding Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield berths behind a roaming Cesc Fabregas in the false nine position, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that Barcelona’s struggles against PSG with this rejigged line-up had something to do with a lack of confidence as well as the lack of Messi. Fluid passing football requires a certain assurance in decision-making, a confidence in the pass that is about to be executed, and the way Sergio Busquets constantly ceded the ball to PSG’s midfield and Gerard Pique passed it straight to Zlatan Ibrahimovic suggests this was uncharacteristically missing from otherwise accomplished performers.

Undoubtedly, Messi’s arrival injected a level of unique technical excellence that could be seen in his mazy run which drew and confounded PSG’s defenders before allowing David Villa and Pedro to find the inches of space to create which had been denied them all night, but there were fleeting glimpses that suggested Barcelona had not given a full demonstration of their abilities sans Messi on the night. Interspersed among their struggles to sustain possession, repel PSG and create attacks, was a period at the very beginning of the game when they demonstrated their trademark slick interplay in moving threateningly towards the PSG goal, another fluid play later in the half and then a clear opening to score from inside the PSG penalty area that Dani Alves squandered just prior to the arrival of Messi, after going behind had shook off the shackles of fear that had paralysed them and led to their first period of exerted pressure in the match.

Notwithstanding the technical excellence of PSG’s attack, or the way in which Messi in his false 9 position and the rest of the team have become nearly inseparable, Barcelona still missed a golden opportunity to build additional reserves of confidence in his absence and come up with an alternative tactical plan. The sense that the shadow of Messi has at times threatened to put the lights out on the Barcelona careers of those playing immediately around him – including David Villa, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas – could have been snuffed out and, as unique a talent as Messi is, the emboldening of these players could only have served to give Barcelona more outlets for attack in a possible match-up against defensively tight-knit teams such as Bayern and Real who will seek to isolate and suffocate Messi. Instead of grasping one of these opportunities, Barcelona have limped into the top four carrying the sense that they are the most vulnerable, lopsided team of those that remain in the competition.

That said, they still have Messi and where Messi plays, anything in football is possible.

City’s convincing win over United raises further questions about Mancini’s stewardship

If the 2-1 defeat of Manchester United by Manchester City revealed anything, it was the absolute urgency of the need for the club’s Abu Dhabi owners to cast a searching eye on the subject of Roberto Mancini’s future. In contrast to other clubs under the domain of the rich and powerful, Sheikh Mansour has demonstrated an admirable resolve to stick to a long-term blueprint at Manchester City that includes giving his manager time and resources to build a legacy. Yet it is impossible to escape the feeling that, amid the constant emphasis on patience and long-term team-building, City have lost the opportunity to make more of the present.

This is a fantastic, fluid, multi-talented side, as was evidenced by the way they comprehensively beat a United team who are nevertheless on the verge of reclaiming the title from them by a margin that currently stands at 12 points. The incongruity of their triumphant performance yesterday and the wide gap to United in the table brings into focus Mancini’s failure to motivate them for the less high-profile matches that have derailed their bid throughout the season (including defeats to Sunderland, Everton and Southampton), and severely undercuts his regularly voiced conviction that it is the lack of sufficient player resources that has held City back this season. Most of these complaints have centred on City losing out to United in the race to sign Robin van Persie, but it was one of Mancini’s own forwards who has been unwittingly belittled by his constant lament at missing out on the Dutchman who stole the show yesterday with a brilliantly taken goal that made a mockery of his manager’s constant claims that they had not bought well enough to challenge for the title again this season. Taken together with their unburdened schedule after falling at the first hurdle of the Champions League, yesterday’s defeat demonstrated that there can be nowhere for Mancini to hide when it comes to explaining why he was unable to unlock City’s enduring potential to be Premier League champions once again this year.

Rather than accepting blithe platitudes about the time it takes to accrue trophies, Abu Dhabi should instead consider whether Mancini has been unreasonably tardy in guiding City towards their ultimate goal of becoming a top footballing team and global brand. After failing to progress in the Champions League and making the Premier League race a non-event earlier than expected, the only claim City have on the hearts of neutrals and potential fans around the world is their stylish football. Yet even there the suspicion remains that it has more to do with the innate gifts of players such as David Silva, Carlos Tevez and Aguero than any firm philosophy of the manager. As with Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, Mancini’s most important task would have been to imbue a set of lavishly gifted players with the hunger and drive required to bridge the gap to glory; this understandably surfaced in City’s players for a marquee match such as at Old Trafford yesterday, but his crucial inability to rouse them for matches against smaller teams means he failed in this department too.

It may be that City missed a trick by not approaching and wooing Pep Guardiola. An arch-motivator of men, he would have refined the team’s natural inclination for attractive football whilst adding a hunger to them that meant their battles with Manchester United would take on a much greater significance than they do at present. As much as City have emphasised the fact that the team wins or loses with more members of its staff than simply the manager, the role of the footballing figurehead still remains pivotal and Guardiola would have ticked all the on-pitch and off-pitch boxes that would usher City closer to their dream of becoming a genuine footballing force on the world stage. Instead, after Mancini’s public tussle with Balotelli, fall-out with other key players, failure to inject his team with sufficient enthusiasm, and increasingly tetchy public persona, they risk becoming a parody of blundering incompetence and foolhardy governance.