Charlie Nicholas would have been glad when he read Manchester City’s starting line-up for the first leg of their Champions League tie against Barcelona: only one of Fernando and Fernandinho were starting.
However, even the often-flustered Scottish Sky Sports News pundit wouldn’t have had much trouble telling the two Brazilian midfielders apart on this occasion, as one nearly turned the game around while the other looked dangerously out of his depth.
The decision to play a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation against Barcelona is one Manuel Pellegrini will have to defend for some weeks, maybe months.
At the base of that midfield were James Milner and Fernando, two very hard-working players, designed to stifle Barca’s attacking abilities.
Pellegrini had, however, appeared to have forgotten about what to do when City actually had the ball, even if that didn’t happen all that often.
Having said that, City’s 40% possession was in itself quite an achievement, given that in La Liga this season Barcelona have averaged 70.6% possession in all their games.
When City turned the ball over, they looked to keep it, enjoying in parts of the opening 20 minutes some spells of controlled possession.
However, when the ball came to Fernando at the base, there was zero invention. Of his 36 passes, only 15 of them went forwards, and when he didn’t pass it, he was twice in the first 12 minutes caught dithering in a dangerous area.
In a system where David Silva and Samir Nasri would spring forward in an effort to get at Barcelona’s full backs, his lack of passing range hurt City, and more often than not he would be forced to give it to his centre backs or, worse still, his keeper.
So City’s wingers were forced to feed off scraps from Edin Dzeko’s headers and Sergio Aguero’s skill.
Even as a defensive midfielder, Fernando’s performance was woeful and he was often seen sauntering back towards his own goal as Messi and co bore down on an unusually rudderless Vincent Kompany.
After an hour, Fernandinho was introduced to the fray, in a move that confused supporters baying for an attacking change.
While Pellegrini may have made a huge pre-match tactical blunder, this was an inspired move. He shifted Milner to the wide right position, and set Fernandinho at the heart of his team.
As if by magic City, who had shown considerable fight immediately after half time but then withered again, were reinvigorated by a central midfielder who could pick passes past Busquets and Rakitic and who could exploit the flanks of Barcelona.
In under 10 minutes, Fernandinho’s neat touch, turn, and defence-splitting pass got past the Barcelona midfield, and Aguero produced a piece of brilliance to give City hope in the tie.
It was mostly said in the press box that if Pellegrini wants his side to play four midfielders, they must ‘have the legs’. Fernando had anything but.
Main image courtesy of Manchester City FC via YouTube, with thanks.