Man City to gain advantage
Chris Hammer previews Tuesday night's Champions League action and expects Manchester City to beat Barcelona.
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Manuel Pellegrini may well have played down Manchester City's quadruple hopes after they beat Chelsea on Saturday to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals but the possibility of such a feat can't be completely dismissed as they head towards the business end of the season.
The odds on City winning the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League is still a rather speculative 33/1 in places although that price is sure to come in significantly should they overcome their two-legged last 16 affair with Barcelona either side of a widely expected Wembley victory over Sunderland in the next few weeks.
- 2pts Manchester City to beat Barcelona at 19/10 (BetVictor) - City are bubbling back to their best and will be desperate to make home advantage count.
- 0.5pts Manchester City to win the quadruple at 33/1 (BetVictor) - Should Man City get past Barca, the odds on this speculative punt will be significantly cut.
Then they have what should be a relatively easy home tie to reach the FA Cup semi-final against holders Wigan, who won't be expected to repeat last season's Wembley heroics.
Sure, many punting purists would probably deem such a 'special' as a mug's bet - especially considering such an achievement has never been done before - but on the other hand this is arguably the last chance to snap it up before the price becomes too short to tempt.
Admittedly, the quad wasn't very appealing a fortnight ago.
That 1-0 home defeat to Chelsea in the league before an uncharacteristic toothless display during a goalless draw at Norwich had made City look mere mortals following a barnstorming run of 18 wins in 20 games across all competitions and all of a sudden they had drifted from odds-on for the league title to 6/4 second favourites.
It just goes to show how bookies and punters alike can make knee-jerk reactions or make new perceptions about any side's capabilities on the back of one or two games and almost ignore all the previous evidence that had been stacking up ominously.
The same could be said for Chelsea. Despite being unable to guide his side to victory over West Ham in a frustrating goalless draw just days before, Jose Mourinho's trumpet was seemingly blown from all quarters when Chelsea won at the Etihad but it wasn't too long before they resigned their position as favourites back to City when dropping two more points against struggling West Brom.
The title rivals met again this past weekend in the FA Cup, with City earning what Vincent Kompany described as 'revenge' thanks to a rather routine 2-0 victory.
Some will argue their continued involvement in four competitions could hamper their title hopes, but at least the result and solid performance suggests they are bubbling back towards top form ahead of their huge showdown with Barcelona at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night.
The postponement of City's clash with Sunderland last Wednesday night may cause fixture problems later down the line but for the time being, they should also be slightly fresher than the Catalans, who had to come through a Copa del Rey semi-final second leg in midweek prior to their thumping 6-0 victory over Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.
Obviously much hinges on this first leg as anyone who backs City won't want them needing a win at the Nou Camp to progress although their 3-2 victory against defending champions Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena (albeit in a 'dead rubber') means such a scenario shouldn't be regarded as a lost cause.
There aren't many elite European sides who have outscored Barcelona pro rata in recent years but Manchester City's awesome firepower this season certainly won't have gone unnoticed by Gerardo Martino and his side.
Both clubs have played 40 games in all competitions this season with the English outfit managing a whopping 117 goals compared with Barcelona's almost as eye-opening 111.
Clearly the absence of Sergio Aguero takes that extra razor-sharp edge off City's strikeforce but the personal goal tallies of Edin Dzeko and Alvaro Negredo this season - at home and abroad - are also impressive while Stevan Jovetic continued his rehabilitation after an injury-hit campaign with a goal in the victory over Chelsea.
Pellegrini was boosted by the returns of Javi Garcia and Samir Nasri, who netted the second, on Saturday after their spells on the sidelines but the Chilean may still be without Fernandinho on Tuesday night.
Much was made of how Chelsea benefited from the Brazilian's late withdrawal from City's midfield prior to the league meeting at the Etihad and they ideally need him back sooner than later as they battle for glory on four fronts.
That said, Yaya Toure, who was out of sorts without his main midfield partner during that 1-0 defeat and all too often left Martin Demichelis exposed due to his attacking roaming, coped much better alongside Garcia in Saturday's rematch and his concentrated defensive efforts thwarted the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian and Ramires.
If Fernandinho loses his race against time to be fit for the first leg, Toure should probably be deployed in this more defensive role once again to prevent Lionel Messi, Neymar, Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and co causing irreversible damage.
With this in mind, I'm a little sceptical about the chances of a high-scoring affair despite the obvious attacking and creative talents on display while the high stakes nature of the tie may prompt a cagey, nullifying battle.
On the other hand, if Pellegrini thinks keeping a clean sheet against the tournament favourites will be hard enough, perhaps he'll ask his side to release the shackles and do what they've done best this season - outscore the opposition.
Whatever tactics the hosts opt for, I feel there is enough reason to oppose the might of Barcelona.
Despite sauntering through the group stages and finishing top, Barca needed a late Cesc Fabregas strike to see off Celtic at Parkhead while they could only manage an away draw at a mid-table AC Milan side before suffering a surprise defeat at Ajax despite naming a pretty strong line-up.
City will be fully aware their best hopes of progression rest on winning this first leg and when you combine the quality Pellegrini has at his disposal together with their superb home record, I believe the price of 19/10 about them taking a lead to the Nou Camp is well worth snapping up.
In Tuesday night's other last-16 tie, Bayer Leverkusen play host to Paris St Germain and I'm going to tentatively opt for the draw at a general 12/5.
The visitors may well be pulling clear in the Ligue 1 title race thanks largely to the exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani but their price of 11/8 to win at the home of Germany's second best side (admittedly by quite a distance!) doesn't have too much appeal.
Cavani is highly doubtful to be fit in time for the trip to the Bay Arena while their last match on the road in the competition resulted in a 2-1 defeat to Benfica.
Laurent Blanc's men have also drawn their previous two away games in Ligue 1 - including a surprising slip-up against lowly Guingamp in which they required an 88th-minute equaliser to escape with a point - so let's not get too carried away with the hype surrounding them.
Obviously we can't forget Leverkusen were ruthlessly swept aside 5-0 at home by a much-maligned Manchester United side but generally speaking they've been pretty solid on their own patch this season.
They thrashed Shakhtar Donetsk 4-0 and edged out Real Sociedad 2-1 in their other group matches at home while they've picked up 25 points from 11 Bundesliga encounters there.
As with Man City, they will view this leg as a must-win affair if they are to stand a decent chance of reaching the quarter-finals whereas you'd expect PSG to be more than happy with a draw.
Champions League Last-16 First Leg Verdicts:
Manchester City 2 Barcelona 1
Bayer Leverkusen 1 Paris St Germain 1