Midfield questions will test Pellegrini’s stubbornness against Barcelona

Last year, the tie was over after 90 minutes. Manchester City had lost the game 2-0 and defender Martín Demichelis to suspension at the Etihad. The team fared better in the second leg, remaining in the game until Dani Alves’ injury-time winner, but the improvement was only marginal. It was the first time City had made it to the UEFA Champions League’s knockout round, hamstrung previously by acclimatizing to new requirements and, mainly, former manager Roberto Mancini’s obvious limitations. Barcelona advanced, 4-1.

This time holds less fear for City, as well as its fans. Everyone knows what to expect. Barcelona is the clear favorite, but City remains as capable as it was last season. You can expect Barcelona to prevail, but it would not be incredible for Manchester City to reach the quarterfinals.

Manchester City v Sheffield Wednesday - FA Cup Third Round

Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images.

The team’s biggest problem is the midfield. Yaya Touré is back from the Africa Cup of Nations but is suspended after being sent off in group stage against CSKA Moscow. Though still slightly out of sorts, Touré remains City’s most effective attacking midfielder, playing less from the sidelines than David Silva while offering more strength than Fernando, Fernandinho, Jesus Navas or James Milner.

Again drawn against Barcelona in the Round of 16, how Manchester City deal with Touré’s absence is key. The 4-5-1 formation Manuel Pellegrini used in group stage against Roma helped his team advance and could offset Touré’s absence, but anticipating that setup assumes the City manager can again adapt.

“I was under the impression we were getting ‘The Engineer’ – this Mourinho type that was a tactical mastermind,” Christie MacDonald, a rapidly ageing City fan who likes coats, describes, attempting to explain fans’ frustrations with Pellegrini. Instead, MacDonald notes, the team has “… someone who at times has stubbornly picked a formation which clearly isn’t working and only changed when injuries/suspensions have forced him to.”

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If he sticks with that four-midfielder formation against Barcelona, it could pose a huge problem. Fernando and Fernandinho would, presumably, be his first choices in central midfield. Neither offer any great attacking threat, though the greatest problem is Fernando utterly failing to impress in his first season with the club. The former Porto midfielder’s passing range, which has to be at its best against the constant pressing and possession dominance of Barcelona, is the worst of City’s midfielders, and possibly the worst of a great many midfielders.

The question, then, is whether Pellegrini will approach the game by using an additional midfielder. That’s unlikely, says MacDonald. “As much as a lot of us don’t always agree with it, he favors 4-4-2 – blindly at times.”

If Pellegrini does play an extra man in the middle, he has a forward capable of performing alone. Sergio Agüero remains the team’s pre-eminent striker, and despite his lack of height, he has the advantage of considerable if deceptive strength, with his usual ruthlessness returning as he approaches full fitness. Barcelona is by no means perfect at the back, and in a European match against such imposing opposition, there could be few chances to take. Better they fall to Agüero than Edin Dzeko.

That leaves responsibility for defensive discipline and Agüero’s service to the three remaining midfielders – a trio likely to bridge that gap between the two deeper Brazilians and Pellegrini’s main threat up top. Silva and Samir Nasri will be key to creating the chances, but they have to be aware of tracking runners on the counterattack, not just the three Barça forwards.

Manchester City v Sheffield Wednesday - FA Cup Third Round

Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images.

The final spot, however, offers another place where the manager’s view deviates from the fans’. If Milner plays, he would be to superior option to Jesus Navas, whose pace and counterattacking threat is undermined by consistently disappointing. Far better employ Milner’s defensive discipline on the right and take advantage of the underrated attacking play he’s shown this season, as well as his increasingly impressive range of passing.

“Most City fans I know prefer him on the wing over Navas,” Harry Stopes, another City fan, explained, describing Navas as a player “who seems to have Pellegrini’s inexplicable favor.” With Milner’s consistent excellence yet to be rewarded it’s little wonder he might make one of his shuttle runs out of the door to Liverpool or Arsenal in the summer.

Though his selection adds an element of intrigue to the midfield, any side facing Luis Suárez, Lionel Messi and Neymar must also be concerned with its defense. Vincent Kompany will start, and he will need to recall his very best form of 2012. While Demichelis is not the hapless fool he was often promised to be, he too remains capable of rank clangers. For a similar reason, the inexperienced Eliaquim Mangala will feature on the bench. Gael Clichy, one of the most mediocre left-backs to play consistently in a side as able as City’s, will be vulnerable. With Silva likely to be his protection, his flank will be City’s main concern.

City will have to be fortunate, something you rarely associate with a club that, despite winning the lottery, has often managed some embarrassing failures – not limited to Joe Hart’s hair. But the team has managed to stay in touch at the top of the Premier League despite blips in form and injuries to key players. It also negotiated a Champions League group that its previous incarnations would have run away from, crying and soiled.

A mixture of luck, skill and occasional resilience sees them with a chance against Barcelona. Just a chance, but a chance nevertheless.