Ten-man City went out of the Champions League with their heads held high after more than matching Barcelona at the Nou Camp – but ultimately leaving the competition for this season.
Denied perhaps two penalties and reduced to ten men, the Blues proved that in football, you don’t always get what you deserve as the Catalans secured an injury time winner to edge home 2-1 in enthralling second leg.
This was a game where City simply had to gamble. With no lead to defend and a 2-0 deficit to claw back, Manuel Pellegrini’s team selection demanded a starting XI packed with attacking options.
The left-sided combination of Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov from the first leg was ditched as City reverted to a more familiar formation 4-2-3-1 with the only surprise - albeit a welcome one - was James Milner’s return to the side.
Milner was one of seven changes Pellegrini made from the team that began the game against Wigan on Sunday and with skipper Vincent Kompany demanding his troops find their mojo again after City’s recent dip in form.
Prior to this game, the Blues had won just three of the past seven games, scoring seven goals in the process – that compared with the 29 goals scored in the previous seven! Barcelona, meanwhile, dubbed as a ‘club in crisis’ by the Spanish Press following three defeats in their last six, hardly came into this tie in rip-roaring form.
It all added up to an intriguing clash.
The first-half may have passed by without any goals, but there were plenty of talking points. Joleon Lescott was a shade lucky not to concede an early penalty for a challenge on Lionel Messi, but City were only occasionally troubled by the Catalans.
Joe Hart was twice forced to make decent saves, brushing a Neymar shot around the post and beating out a close-range effort from Xavi after Messi had threaded a clever ball into the box.
Kompany and Fernandinho both mopped up chances when Hart finally was beaten, firstly when the Blues’ skipper collected a loose ball from Messi a yard from goal and Ferna headed compatriot Neymar’s goal-bound effort clear with Hart stranded yards from his net.
They were half-chances and nothing more, with Kompany and Lescott strong in the tackle and decisive in the challenge.
The main frustration throughout was the over-fussy refereeing of Stephane Lannoy who saw fit to book three City players in the opening period and seemed to blow for a free-kick every time a challenge on Iniesta or Neymar was made – yet there was no parity when the hosts made several similar infringements.
It was probably just as well Blues’ boss Pellegrini was watching from the stands following his touchline ban from Uefa!
City, by no means overawed, had two good chances to half the aggregate score in the opening period when Milner mis-hit a Kolarov cross early on when well-placed and Samir Nasri hit a shot straight at Valdes after fine work by Yaya Toure and David Silva.
The injured Sergio Aguero was substituted for Edin Dzeko at half-time as the Blues made their first change of the evening but within six minutes, both sides had come close to scoring.
First, Messi broke into the box before placing a low shot against the inside of the post, and then Dzeko forced Valdes into a brilliant save as he headed Kolarov’s cross towards the top corner.
With the game suddenly opening up at either end, Hart bravely saved at the feet of Fabregas and then Zabaleta blazed wide when the Kolarov’s cross found its way to the Argentine eight yards out.
City had the La Liga side on the ropes as the game reached boiling point, but that elusive first goal still wouldn’t come.
Then, with Gerard Pique manhandling Dzeko as a long ball came towards the Bosnian, the referee inexplicably blew for a Barca free-kick – within a minute Messi had broken the deadlock after picking up a loose ball and flicking it past Hart on 67 minutes.
It was harsh and, in truth, undeserved, but it was the killer blow as far as City’s hopes were concerned and yet again, poor refereeing had hardly helped the Blues’ cause.
To rub salt in the wounds, Dzeko was clearly fouled in the box by Pique with ten minutes to go - but again, nothing doing from the officials. As the City players argued with the referee's decision - or lack of - an inevitable second yellow card was produced for Zabaleta to make it mission impossible.
Down but by no means out, the Blues battled on and there was still time for the superb Kompany to scramble home a richly deserved equaliser on 89 minutes, but even then, the Blues were denied a modicum of reward as Danny Alves poked home an injury time winner for the hosts.
Apparently fortune favours the brave – but not on this occasion, though City will have learned much from this campaign’s European adventure. The Blues will return stronger and wiser next season.