By Manchester correspondent Alex Stevens
An hour into Barcelona’s second annihilation of Manchester City in three weeks and Lionel Messi was in possession of the ball on the edge of his own half close to the touchline.
Yaya Toure was the nearest Manchester City player and ambled over to close down the Spanish maestro. Slowly. Messi eased into the Manchester City half with the ball before stopping, and, for what seemed like an age, standing to ponder his options.
Toure stopped a full five yards away from his opponent. Five yards. There was no attempt to press the most gifted player on the planet, or to harass him in possession. The game virtually came to a standstill before Messi casually poked the ball back to a team-mate.
This summed up Toure’s intensity levels over the two legs of a tie in which he looked like a once-indestructible boxer who had gone one fight too many.
The heavyweight Ivorian looked lethargic, sluggish, disinterested, even. Just as he did at Etihad Stadium three weeks ago, and just as he did at Anfield when City were dealt such a killer blow to their Premier League hopes in between the two legs.
Manuel Pellegrini showed what he thought of Toure’s Nou Camp contribution by substituting his talisman at the 71-minute mark with City still requiring two goals to take the tie into extra time. The unthinkable had happened.
The dominant midfielder in the Premier League in recent years has become a liability in the central domain in which he once stood like a colossus.
Toure is reluctant to track runners and do the hard yards that all midfielders must when their team does not dominate possession. The explosive pace and drive is held in reserve and the switch is flicked only when he is making forward bursts.
But for a staggering collection of one-on-one saves from Joe Hart as Barcelona ripped the victors apart on the counter-attack, City would have been humiliated in the second leg.
Nevertheless, the club’s second consecutive Champions League elimination at the hands of Barcelona was an embarrassment for Toure.
Pellegrini had attempted to provide better protection for his defence by dropping Edin Dzeko, deploying David Silva as a second striker and beefing up the midfield with the inclusion of James Milner to the left of Toure and Fernandinho.
It made little difference. Barcelona were even more dominant than they had been in their away-day masterclass at Etihad Stadium. Messi was at his mesmeric best, and the nimble feet of Neymar, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic danced to the conductor’s tune.
By comparison, Toure looked like a busted flush. Fernandinho and Milner hardly excelled but at least they put in decent shifts.
Dietmar Hamann was one of the first to spot signs of decline in Toure’s game 14 months ago when he used his Match of the Day slot to hightlight the player’s negligible contribution off the ball in a narrow away victory at Swansea City.
The former City midfielder was prescient and ahead of his time. Toure, who turns 32 in May, has visibly aged. He remains a force when his team control possession but he no longer looks capable of a operating as part of a central midfield duo against marquee opponents.
The obvious future role for a player who remains a matchwinner on his day is in the No10 position behind a centre-forward where he can influence matches with his vision, passing and considerable goalscoring threat.
There was hysteria among the City faithful when Toure attempted to engineer his exit from the club last summer in the wake of their title triumph.
Antagonised at what he perceived was the club’s failure to properly mark his birthday, Toure felt disrespected and slighted.
There is unlikely to be the same devastation among the fanbase if he kicks up a stink again this year.
It might be an opportune time for City to blow out the candles on his City career.