When he popularised the phrase "There are three kinds of lies; lies, damned lies and statistics", Mark Twain was really on to something.
If you introduced a statistician to FC Barcelona's form in away knockout matches – from Josep Guardiola's first season (2008/09) until now – he or she would be true to their profession in pronouncing the subject of the study as unimpressive.
Since losing 1-0 at Wisla Kraków in the second leg of a UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie in 2008, Barça have played 15 further away knockout ties in the competition proper, winning only three. It does not look, prima facie, the record of European champions.
Yet in those years the Blaugrana have never done worse than reach the semi-finals, winning the trophy twice. The key is that on each of the seven occasions they have managed an away draw, whether first or second leg, they have advanced. Every time they have won away from home they have marched on. Furthermore, exactly half the time they have lost away, first or second leg, Barcelona have still managed to qualify (three out of six).
On two of the failed occasions – semi-finals against FC Internazionale Milano (2009) and Chelsea FC (2012) – the home legs were nail-biters where until the very last seconds a single goal for the Azulgrana would have put them in a qualifying position. Only last season's drubbing from FC Bayern München bucks the trend (defeated 4-0 away and 3-0 at home). It tends to suggest to Manchester City FC, debutants at this stage of the UEFA Champions League, that they need to get the job done – and get it done firmly – in Manchester next week.
Perhaps there are two things which most readily characterise the Barcelona era since Guardiola's 'football revolution' began in summer 2008. First is the explosive goal power of Lionel Messi which can take any match, sometimes any competition, away from the opposition. Second is the remarkable, repetitive precision passing which, at its peak, can make the other team feel like they are not really in the match.
However, there is now a firmly established third trend. Since April 2012, this time including UEFA Champions League group stage matches, Barcelona have lost at Chelsea, AC Milan, Celtic FC, Bayern and AFC Ajax. In those five defeats they scored only twice.
Notwithstanding some of the fine play exhibited by those five teams during their victories, two recurring factors have been Barcelona's opponents playing at a consistently higher tempo and winning either physical or aerial battles. These, therefore, must be areas where City have a potential advantage over Gerardo Martino's Barcelona on this season's evidence.
However, top-level football is a little like great comedy – the secret is in the timing. Which of them will be less depleted by injuries and loss of form; which of these two great footballing sides will dig inside their armoury of desire and champion spirit and find extra supplies? Set the statistics aside now – this is football that cannot be missed.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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