What is it about Barcelona and throwing away three-goal leads lately?
After Lionel Messi and co chucked away a 4-1 first leg lead to lose to Roma in the Champions League this month, their youngsters almost did something very similar in this thrill-a-minute UEFA Youth League semi.
They led 10-man Manchester City 5-2 at the interval and looked like they’d ring up double figures.
Barcelona’s players celebrate after scoring during their UEFA Youth League win on Friday
Yet somehow they spent five anxious minutes of second-half stoppage time clinging on for dear life at just 5-4 ahead after City launched what was almost the most sensational of comebacks.
Even amid this avalanche of goals, it wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the decisive moment.
The 36th-minute sending off of Manchester City’s Lorenzo Gonzalez, for a second bookable offence, ultimately proved fatal to their hopes of reaching a first Youth League final.
City rallied all the way to the end but couldn’t stop Barcelona from progressing to the final
That particular challenge, on Barcelona’s Miranda, was worthy of a yellow card. The true contention here was the call by referee Aliyar Aghayev of Azerbaijan to book Gonzalez in the ninth minute for a foul on Miranda that was innocuous at best.
When Gonzalez walked off, City trailed 3-2, having played their full part in a kamikaze first-half that saw both attacks going hammer and tongs at one another and the art of defensive football trashed.
Having come from behind twice already, there was no reason why City couldn’t do it a third time. But for a wondersave from Barca keeper Ignacio Pena, they might have led 3-2 themselves.
Being reduced to 10 men in such circumstances was therefore a complete travesty for this semi-final but, thanks to City’s spirit after the break, the entertainment somehow didn’t suffer.
Manchester City’s Joel Latibeaudiere celebrates scoring to make it 1-1 during the semi final
Barcelona are nothing if not ruthless and by half-time they had scored five. Carles Perez led the way with two, while Alex Collado, Ricard Puig and Alejandro Marques also got in on the act. Three of them were created by the outstanding right-back Mateu Morey.
City, who’d twice equalised thanks to Joel Latibeaudiere and Lukas Nmecha, continued to fight, to their immense credit, and Rabbi Matondo made it 5-3 with 20 minutes left.
And when Nmecha scored again five minutes before the close, the impossible almost became reality. Relief was etched on the faces of the Barcelona players when the final whistle finally blew.
But the reality is that playing a Barcelona team, even their under-19s, with 11 men is hard enough. playing them with 10 men and winning is nigh on impossible. City did awesomely well to get so close, but ultimately ran out of time and puff.
If this had been an 11 vs 11 contest throughout, surely City would have won it?
City’s Eric Garcia watches on during the Friday afternoon game in Nyon in Switzerland
But as it is, Barcelona will take on Chelsea in a mouth-watering Youth League final on Monday evening and the battle royale between the two leading English academies isn’t to be.
City’s cause wasn’t helped by the UEFA regulation that states a player becomes ineligible for the Youth League as soon as they have chalked up three appearances in the Champions League.
Obviously it’s a good thing that Pep Guardiola keeps a keen eye on the performances of the next generation, and is so willing to promote them, but it meant City were deprived of key men Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz for this one.
The first yellow card shown to Gonzalez, after nine minutes, wasn’t really noticed because it was swiftly followed by Barcelona’s opening goal.
They had started on the front foot and when Morey lofted a through pass over the head of Edward Francis to spring Perez into the clear, there was no catching him.
Perez hasn’t missed too many chances in this year’s competition and his low shot was inch-perfect to evade the legs of keeper Daniel Grimshaw.
There was then a 10-minute lull before a bonkers spell of three goals in four minutes as any notion of defensive competence was tossed away.
Firstly, City levelled when Latibeaudiere soared unchallenged in the box to thunder home Iker Pozo’s searching corner, leaving Pena clutching at thin air.
Not that the lead lasted too long. Latibeaudiere fouled Miranda right on the edge of the box and picked up a booking. Collado stood over the ball and shaped as though to curl it over the wall. Instead he whipped a low shot around the City wall and into the bottom corner.
Their celebrations didn’t last too long. Back roared City, with Felix Nmecha’s pass finding its way to his brother Lukas, who controlled neatly and swept home left-footed into the far corner. 2-2.
Remarkably, City could easily have then been in front, such was the volatile nature of proceedings. Lukas Nmecha got a good connection to a right-side cross, only for keeper Pena, miraculously, to turn it over the bar from point-blank range.
Manchester City (3-4-2-1): Grimshaw; Martret, Latibeaudiere, Francis; Gonzalez, Dele-Bashiru, Pozo (Matondo 46), Bolton (Garre 66); F Nmecha (Doyle 79), Poveda; L Nmecha (c)
Substitutes not used: Sokol (GK); Duhaney, Wilson, Diallo
Coach: Simon Davies
Scorers: Latibeaudiere 20; L Nmecha 24, 85; Matondo 70
Booked: Gonzalez, Latibeaudiere
Sent off: Gonzalez
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pena; Morey (Jaime 73), Mingueza (c), Comas (Brandariz 87), Miranda; Orellana (Morer 79), Collado, Puig; Ruiz, Marques, Perez
Substitutes not used: Carevic (GK); Garcia, Tugarinov, Mortimer
Coach: Francisco Pimienta
Scorers: Perez 10, 42; Collado 23; Puig 32; Marques 44
Referee: Aliyar Aghayev (Azerbaijan)
It would prove costly as Barcelona restored their lead not long afterwards. The dangerous Morey again pushed up and showed tenacity to cross from the byline. City failed to deal with it and eventually Puig finished with composure from a few yards.
Gonzalez was sent off on 36 minutes, so if City could have seen out the remaining nine until half-time, they might have been able to stabilise things. Instead, Barca went right for the jugular.
Three minutes before the break and Perez was on hand to ram the ball home after Grimshaw had done superbly to save from Marques at the other side of the goalmouth.
That was the seventh goal Perez had scored in this season’s Youth League and if he was having a late tilt at the 10 scored by leading scorer Ivan Ignatyev of Krasnodar, then fair play to him.
Four was bad enough, but five was as daunting as scaling one of the Alpine peaks that frame the vista from the Stade Colovray bare-footed.
It was the troublesome Morey that supplied the long ball to release Marques through the heart of City’s back line and he finished with a little dink reminiscent of some other Barcelona player.
City switched to a 5-3-1 at half-time to try and spare complete humiliation and they did succeed in stemming the flow of goals. Naturally, they found it tough going forward but Tom Dele-Bashiru did force Pena into another save.
And with Barcelona taking their foot off the gas, substitute Matondo drilled home a third for City with 20 minutes remaining.
When Nmecha pounced on a mistake by Amau Comas to reduce the arrears to just the one goal with five minutes left, people were starting to truly believe.