If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
That was the view of the crackly, expert voice coming from my car radio, as the backlit, industrial skyline of Manchester grew closer.
Midweek football games always offer a different atmosphere – no less European encounters – and a certain tension hung in the air as I left my vehicle on a cobbled back street, and made my way toward the glowing stadium.
Already, crowds were milling around, and the anticipation from the City fans was tangible. Could this be their year?
Since taking the reins back in 2008, Sheik Mansoor has overseen an historic rise to the top of world football.
Well, not quite to the top, as there is still one shiny piece of silverware that has so far proved elusive – but City stand, potentially, just seven and a half hours from getting their eager mitts on that trophy.
But first, they must negotiate this fixture. In a round of tasty clashes, this one stands out the most – and all of the pre-game talk was of tactics and tiki-taka, cutting edge and cunning
Like the experts said – if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best – and Barcelona certainly fit that bill.
At least, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona did.
That side, which set 2011 alight, and dismantled Manchester United in the final to take this trophy back to Catalonia, will go down as, probably, the best club side in the history of the game.
It was the epitome of possession, patience and poise – almost perfection.
But, just three years on, whilst the Blaugrana are still chalking up the wins on the pitch, much has changed off it – and not least the face in the dugout.
Meet the new guy in town: Tata Martino.
Since pitching up from Newell’s Old Boys last summer, the Argentinian has been faced with something of a thankless task – and his transition has not been an easy one.
Indeed, despite their sitting pretty atop the Spanish Primera Division going into this game, there have been rumblings of discontent in Spain, and Barcelona had a real point to prove against what is certainly one of the top sides on the continent.
As I took my seat in the Etihad press box, there was a real buzz about the stadium – and as the media from far and wide hurriedly conjoined below me, a reminder that the world was watching.
A complete sell out, there was not an empty seat in the house, and the vociferous Barcelona fans, contained behind the goals, marked their territory to my right.
As kick off approached, the line ups were revealed – and a confused grumble could be heard from three sides of the stadium as it was announced that half man, half pony tail Martin Demichelis would be starting ahead of Joleon Lescott.
The Greek, a player who the incoming City boss knows well from their time shared of Malaga, has found it difficult to get going in the north west – and seems to spend the majority of his time on the pitch apologising to his team mates.
As the players spilled out of the tunnel, a nervous energy seeped through the stadium. The stage was set.
For all of the pre-game hype, talk of cutting edge, and forecasts of ‘goals, goals, goals’, the opening exchanges were actually a rather cautious affair.
As is so often the case with the first leg of a two game tie, both sides seemed desperate to avoid shipping the opening goal – and, if anything, City’s reluctance to attack their guests only played into Barcelona’s hands.
It was clear that the Blues had gone into this clash with a game plan. Pellegrini opted for a defensive line up, electing to deploy the industrious Aleksandar Kolarov down the left flank, in place of a recently returning Samir Nasri.
A sensible move, in my opinion. As many have discovered before him, if you try and out-football Barcelona, you will lose.
City seemed buoyed by their early efforts – and actually had the best of the opening exchanges, with Alvaro Negredo coming close on two occasions.
But it was his fellow countryman David Silva who was really terrorising the away defence, his constant trickery and movement causing real headaches for their backline.
And then Barcelona began to find their feet.
First, a speculative effort from Xavi which was parried by Joe Hart. Next, a half chance for Lionel Messi.
Indeed, as the visitors began to slip into second gear, then third, then fourth, their passing and movement became slicker by the minute.
They are as synonymous with their tiki-taka style as they are with their blue and red dash – and, in full flow, it really is a sight to behold.
With the ever-influential Xavi pulling the strings, their approach relies as much on graft and geometry as it does grace and genius – and, where many call their build-up play tepid, I would argue the opposite.
Barca move from back to front so quickly that as a spectator you cannot afford to take your eyes off the game – and the movement and balance of Messi in particular is just astounding to observe in a live setting.
Their tiki-taka style is as synonymous with the Nou Camp side as their red and blue dash, and it is an approach which relies as much on graft and geometry as it does grace and genius.
With Barcelona begin to edge proceedings, City clung on – just – and as the minutes ticking down, the referee broke for half time. I’m sure that the hosts were thankful for the breather, but all in all, it had been a pretty even contest.
Speaking to the home fans at half time, there was a real sense of optimism amongst the City faithful, and, having spotted some weakness within the Barcelona rearguard, they were even beginning to rue their manager’s decision to field a somewhat reserved line up.
“We can win this” was the claim, as, refreshed, we took our seats once again.
But that optimism was soon rendered misplaced. It was after the restart that game kicked into action.
Messi, ever the opportunist, breached the offside travel to meet Cesc Fabregas’ perfect through ball, only to be desperately brought down by the ambling Demichelis.
Time stopped. Flashbulbs popped. An audible intake of breath came from three sides of the ground.
And then the whistle.
The shrill siren pierced what was by now a stunned silence, and the referee pointed to the spot – before proudly presenting a red card to the defender.
As the Greek trudged off toward the tunnel, Barcelona congratulated each other – this was their breakthrough.
Of course, Messi claimed the ball for the spot kick. The outcome was never really in doubt.
As the Argentinian slotted his chance past helpless keeper Joe Hart from 12 yards, the deadlock was broken.
What was to follow was forty minutes of Barcelona calmly containing their hosts, preserving possession, all the while tightening their grip on the tie.
Despite that relative dominance, City were far from down and out. A chance for Bosnian beanpole Edin Dzeko had the 46,033 onlooking spectators up on their feet – but the luck of the visitors held out.
David Silva, arguably the best Spaniard on the pitch, continued his enthusiastic approach, carving and cutting through the away side.
Ultimately, a 0-1 loss, even against a side such as Barcelona, is now embarrassment – particularly with another game to play.
And then disaster struck.
In perhaps a preview of the kind of Brazilian link up we could see first hand this summer, the fresh legs of Neymar, who had replaced Cesc Fabregas in order to stretch the game in the dying moments, proved too quick for the City defence as he rushed past Gael Clichy before sliding it inside to the on rushing Dani Alves.
The full back received the ball in his stride before placing it through the legs of Joe Hart – and suddenly, this tie became a different animal.
It was a killer blow which leaves Manchester City hanging on to their Champions League status by a thread once again.
As the final whistle blew and the stadium began to empty, the Barcelona faithful to my right, scarves and banners aloft, saluted their heroes.
Away boss Tata Martino crossed the pitch looking content. An invaluable away win, a huge 72% possession, and yet another shot at the doubters. He couldn’t really have asked any more of his charges.
The general consensus from the City fans? They’ve left themselves with a mountain to climb, but with the attacking quality that Pellegrini has at his disposal, and nothing to lose, anything can happen.
Nevertheless, the Blues travel to Camp Nou in a fortnight with an all too familiar phrase ringing in their ears.
If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.