Manchester — It was supposed to be the night when Manchester City finally announced itself as a major force in the Champions League after three years of underachievement.
Instead, a 2-1 home loss to Barcelona in the last 16 on Tuesday exposed many of City's usual flaws in the big games in Europe's top competition: tactical inflexibility, lack of composure and yet more indiscipline.
City manager Manuel Pellegrini's decision to play a 4-4-2 formation appeared a risky move, especially against a team so accomplished in midfield as Barcelona, and ended up backfiring. Luis Suarez converted two of Barca's many chances in a one-sided first half at Etihad Stadium and City was lucky to still be in the match at halftime.
Experienced internationals like Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta and even silky playmaker David Silva looked nervous. Easy passes were misplaced. Panic spread from City's players to the home crowd at Etihad Stadium.
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Then, just when City had got back into the match after Sergio Aguero's goal, defender Gael Clichy picked up a second yellow card. The English champions had players sent off in both legs of last season's last-16 loss to Barcelona: Martin Demichelis in the first match and Zabaleta in the second at Camp Nou.
If it wasn't for Joe Hart's penalty save from Lionel Messi in the last seconds of the match, City would be 3-1 behind heading into the second leg and virtually without hope.
"We repeated the same mistake as last year," Pellegrini said.
For that, the Chilean coach has to take a share of the blame.
Few teams play only four in midfield in Europe any more. Midfield supremacy is seen as one of the crucial components of high-level matches, yet City ceded the advantage here. Aguero was partnered by Edin Dzeko in attack, leaving Brazil midfielder Fernandinho on the bench.
Such was Barcelona's possession dominance that the visiting fans were chanting "Ole!" as early as the 23rd minute. Toward the end of the first half, Aguero — a world-class striker reduced to chasing shadows — was wrong-footed by a pass from Andres Iniesta, lost his footing and shook his head.
Pellegrini, however, said he had no regrets about a lineup that was missing a big player in suspended midfielder Yaya Toure.
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"It was the way we must play against Barcelona," he said. "Barcelona will always dominate in some parts of the pitch. In the second half, we demonstrated it was the way we must play from the first minute."
It can be argued that City's improved second-half display was down to Barca's complacency more than anything else. It was that easy for the Spanish team in the first half.
For City, a second straight last-16 exit is likely, after group-stage eliminations in the prior two years. It isn't good enough for one of the biggest-spending teams in Europe.
One of the main reasons that City's Abu Dhabi owners replaced Roberto Mancini with Pellegrini at the end of the 2012-13 season was to improve City's record in the Champions League. They expected more than the last 16.
"It is important for this team to continue in the Champions League as far as possible," Pellegrini said. "It is possible to demonstrate we can compete at this level. This tie isn't over until the game ends in Barcelona. We can analyze it then."
For City to turn the tie around, it must have 11 players on the field for the whole game, and get rid of the 4-4-2 formation that has left the team looking naive in the big European games.