After a stuttering January and a faltering start to February, Manchester City seem to have found their form at just the right time.
Nine goals in the last two games indicates a return to the free-flowing, attractive football that has been missing for much of the season, and with their strikers fit and firing, David Silva at his majestic best and Yaya Touré back to provide control, everything has clicked in time for the clash with Barcelona.
Just as important as the five goals knocked past Newcastle at the weekend, however, was City’s first clean sheet in eleven games. Albeit against a limited attack, a defence which has often looked exposed and uncertain was assured.
The question now for Manuel Pellegrini is how many changes he makes for Tuesday’s encounter. Jesus Navas for Edin Dzeko, boosting midfield and adding express pace, is almost a certainty.
Fernando is likely to replace the suspended Touré, with Gael Clichy and Martin Demichelis expected to step in for Aleks Kolarov and Eliaquim Mangala. That then leaves one main selection dilemma for Pellegrini: Pablo Zabaleta or Bacary Sagna?
The case for Zabaleta
Simply put, Zabaleta is the best attacking right-back in the Premier League. He plays with the commitment and passion that supporters love to see, but offers so much more than merely a battling spirit.
The frequency and intelligence of his forward bursts is what catches the eye, always providing an angle for a pass and stretching the game. He is so often a dangerous outlet for the likes of Silva and Samir Nasri, and his link up play with Navas is established, the pair of them comfortable at overlapping or underlapping to great effect.
He does, nevertheless, have his weaknesses. Against the best wingers, his tendency to commit himself early to a tackle and go to ground does leave him, and the rest of the defence, vulnerable. He plays with his heart on his sleeve and whilst that has turned him into a fans’ favourite, it can also be his downfall on occasions.
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The case for Sagna
Having arrived from Arsenal in the summer, Sagna probably expected to feature more than he has done so far. Yet with City on the front foot during the majority of games, Zabaleta’s greater ability going forward has seen Sagna spend plenty of time warming the bench.
Defensively, though, the Frenchman is the stronger of the pair. He is quicker, more mobile and better in one-on-one situations. Those characteristics have seen him get the nod against Bayern Munich twice in this season’s Champions League and then at Stamford Bridge in the recent clash with Chelsea.
Faced with top quality wide men like Franck Ribery and Eden Hazard, both of whom like to start from the left and drift infield, it is felt that Sagna’s style of defending is better placed to cope.
To that extent, with Neymar likely to operate in a similar manner on Tuesday, Sagna will feel confident that he will be given the nod.
It is certainly not an easy choice and in many ways there is no wrong selection for Pellegrini. At home, and with more onus on City to go out and impose themselves on the tie, the temptation must be there to plump for Zabaleta and his attacking thrust.
That said, the most important thing from the first leg is to not render the second leg irrelevant. If City were to concede a couple of away goals as they pushed forward, it would be a rather challenging task in the Nou Camp to turn it around, as was the case last season.
Therefore, with Sagna having shown his defensive solidity in the biggest games during the course of this campaign, it would be no surprise if he were the chosen man on Tuesday evening. Either way, it promises to be an enthralling encounter.
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