Monsters of the midway
Manuel Pellegrini started Sergio Aguero as a solitary striker, packing the midfield in what at times resembled a bulky 4-5-1 formation with David Silva, Samir Nasri, James Milner, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho all fanning across the middle of the park behind Aguero. Even with what appeared on paper to be unquestioned numerical superiority bolstered the incomparable drive and physicality of Toure, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic were absolutely superb in controlling this critical part of the field and thus the match. Javier Mascherano played deep in front of the back four, allowing Rakitic and Iniesta to control the tempo and spray all manner of passes forward for Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez to feast upon. Both men had the vision, anticipation and confidence to know exactly when to burst forward into the box themselves, evidenced by Rakitic's silky smooth finish of Messi's gorgeously weighted cross in the 31st minute. Iniesta kicked everything into gear in the 8th minute, sprinting to the edge of box before playing an unbelievable one-two with Neymar, who rang a shot off the post.
Many wondered whether Mascherano could adequately replace the injured Sergio Busquets, if this performance is any indication the answer is: 100% affirmative. Busquets' teammates often wax rhapsodic about his one touch passing and perhaps Mascherano isn't his equal in that regard, but he has considerable technical qualities of his own not to mention excellent positional awareness and instincts. He became more assured and instrumental in the 2nd half when City were frantically chasing a goal. Against Real, Busquets' ability to control the ball may be missed moreso than today against City but its absence was more than offset by the brilliance of Iniesta and Rakitic. As it often is, this appears to be the area where El Clasico will be won or lost on Sunday, particularly as Real has struggled to control that area in the past month or so when fatigue and the absence of Luka Modric really began to tell. The return of Modric and a rested Toni Kroos will be pivotal. City seemed almost to concede the midfield after a time and began trying to work the flanks, largely down the left where space could be exploited between Neymar and Jordi Alba. Neymar's workrate improved throughout the match, but initially he was not tracking back and City tried to leverage that to their advantage. This is something Carlo Ancelotti will certainly take note of and be prepared for.
The Argentine's assist on Rakitic's goal was his 21st of the season, meaning he has created a staggering 64 goals for Barcelona so far. Reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, as he flummoxed City with a bewildering array of nutmegs, flicks, feints, crosses and shots. One nutmeg through James Milner was so heinous it drew an incredulous gasp from the wandering eyes of Pep Guardiola. Messi is peaking at exactly the right time of year and will pose an monumental threat to Real's backline. His colleagues up front put in a pretty serious shift as well. The three interchanged and interlocked with damaging speed and fluidity, with Neymar's movement critical to opening up the space for Rakitic to score. The Brazilian darted in on goal, pulling Bacary Sagna with him which allowed Rakitic to slide into the vacant space and chip the ball past Hart. Messi seemed to create at least a dozen deadly chances for Neymar and Suarez, but between Hart's heroics and a handful of unlucky bounces off the goal posts they were left unfinished. It's hard to fathom they will be so wasteful again if left to operate in such a manner.
In the end, Manchester City were a distant second in this tie, a team not yet on Barcelona's level. Watching film of this match will certainly give Carlo Ancelotti a headache, as Messi and Iniesta have not looked this sharp together in over a year.