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ANALYSIS

Pep Guardiola humbled on Barcelona return with City project still far from completion

With Man City determined to emulate Barcelona's model of success, this was a test of how far the English club have come. Unfortunately for Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi had other ideas.

Barcelona are still everything that Manchester City are trying to be.

From the academy to the coach, the City project has been built from the ground up since 2008, and there is no hiding the fact that Barcelona are their inspiration.

City’s official line, that they are working within a "common football philosophy that links the youngest academy boy to the most senior first-team player", is very Barcelona in its outlook – and perhaps best represented by the Etihad Campus, the finest academy in England that is striking in its attempt to imitate Barcelona’s La Masia.

Then there was the addition of Txiki Begiristain as director of football and Ferran Soriano as CEO – both acquired from Barca – in October 2012 to help shape a Barcelona-esque philosophy of excellence and sustained success from the very top.

But the final piece in the puzzle was the acquisition of the super coach that brought two Champions Leagues, three La Ligas and two Copa del Reys in a stunning three-year period at Camp Nou.

Pep Guardiola, above all others, is a man that connects these two clubs on an emotional as well as a technical level. His proclivity for high-intensity, pressure-based possession football extracted the very best from Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi, and is what City yearn for with their current setup.

This Group C meeting at Camp Nou, a stadium in which Guardiola admitted he “grew up in, like a boy” was not his first since leaving Barcelona in 2012. He returned with Bayern Munich in May 2015, only for his new side to be schooled by the very team he built, losing 3-0 as Messi made a fool of Jerome Boateng. Unfortunately for Guardiola, this was another soul-searching experience.

While it’s still early days in his Etihad residency, this was always going to be a litmus test for how far Guardiola’s City have come. And omitting Sergio Aguero from the starting line-up in favour of a recently fit again Kevin de Bruyne as a false nine was a gamble he justified by claiming he “wants more midfield players today”.

The decision backfired. City lacked the attacking guile to trouble Barcelona on a night when Messi provided a lesson in ruthless finishing, and a reminder that the difference between these sides is not a superior philosophy or a winning mentality. An individual error has cost Guardiola's side dear and, while the decision to leave out Aguero was a strange one, City were not as bad as the scoreline suggests.

City’s strategy of pressing high in wide areas, with centre-backs John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi stepping up to starve Messi and Iniesta of time and space was an effective one in the first half, and City were very much in the game in the opening 45 minutes.

But the game’s turning point came after a rush of blood to the head from Claudio Bravo, who inexplicably used his hands outside the box after he was caught miles out of goal, with his sheer stupidity hard for an exasperated Guardiola to fathom. From then on, City invited a Messi-led onslaught, and the rest of the night will be one Guardiola will be keen to forget.

It’s now 0-7 for Guardiola since leaving Camp Nou and a reminder that the special bond between his old players is still one of the best in club football. Guardiola has two weeks until the sides meet again in Manchester, and the Spaniard will be desperate to prove that City have what it takes to be England’s answer to Barcelona. On this evidence, Guardiola still has plenty of work to do.