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As ever, there is a certain Donald Rumsfeld known/unknown quality about Barcelona going into the tantalising Champions League clash with Manchester City. Although the Catalan club might be equal top of the league and all that, having dismissed Rayo Vallecano for six over the weekend (it could have been a heck of a lot more) the mresult can be considered quite worthless as a guide to the Spanish side's current form. Barcelona might be pretty good, no matter the non-existent nature of the opposition, or completely terrible with Gerard Piqué continuing to be a huge liability at the back.
The first reason for this particular predictive problem is that Saturday's rivals, Rayo, are an admirable outfit that simply adores throwing bodies forward and keeping possession of the ball. Unfortunately, this tactic has left them towards the bottom of the table, with Rayo conceding most goals, having lost aforementioned possession with all of their bodies at the wrong end of the pitch. Indeed, the visitors from Madrid barely lasted two minutes before Barcelona scored their first in a victory that saw a brace from Leo Messi, who is looking in sprightlier form after taking a wee while to recover from an injury lay-off.
As ever, the ability of Barcelona to score more than the defence concedes will be key in the Champions League last-16 clash. The attack currently has all of its guns a'blazing with Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Alexis Sánchez all taking over some of the goalscoring duties from the previously overburdened Messi - one key difference from the side that was smashed twice by Bayern Munich. But the defence is quite shambolic at times and still woefully vulnerable from crosses and set-pieces.
Barcelona should have conceded three against Sevilla last week in the first half in the Sánchez Pizjuán, but the Andalusians missed two opportunities after their initial effort to allow Barça back in to win the contest 4-1. Two weeks ago Tata Martino's side were not so lucky with a rare Camp Nou defeat in a 3-2 loss to Valencia that showed Barça's defensive frailties to the full.
The best approach for Manchester City will be to hit the Catalans hard from the off and try to wrap things up in the opening 15 minutes. The match should be seen as 20 minutes long, rather than the usual 180 four-halves affair of the Champions League. The longer Barça are left in the game, the more that the Sevilla scenario could be repeated where the fully awake Spanish side blasted forward, with Messi playing a little deeper than normal to bring his fellow forwards into play. With allegedly very, very, very expensive Neymar back in action again and scoring a whopper against Rayo at the weekend, Barça are not short of firepower, although still overly dependent on attacking through the middle.
In terms of motivation, Champions League success is a huge goal for Barcelona this season. The humiliation by Bayern is still fairly fresh in the memory and the campaign has been a rocky one in terms of off-the-field shenanigans. The controversy over the Neymar transfer still rumbles on, despite the resignation of Sandro Rosell. Meanwhile, the topic of Messi remains an ever-present, whether it be his payment of taxes, motivation for staying at Barcelona, his contract or even whether he is a busted flush who will now be prone to injuries.
Manchester City are the perfect rival to rebuild a bit of self-esteem. The English side are widely admired in Spain - especially with such a large Spanish contingent - and Manuel Pellegrini is very respected indeed, mainly because his impassive demeanor continues to irritate José Mourinho.
The fun with Barcelona this season is that the side can be exhilaratingly good or shockingly awful - not just in the same game but the same half. A tendency to switch concentration on and off is quite prevalent. For this reason, it is impossible to ascertain who will prevail in the City clash.
Instead, the best approach is to let the madness unfold in the two stadiums as some of the most exciting players on the planet have a huge pop at each other.