From Barcelona’s perspective though it was a shameful elimination with certain aspects of it especially disappointing…
MESSI’S MORTAL MOMENT
Barcelona fans have come to expect the extraordinary from Lionel Messi and really, the Argentine only has himself to blame. He’s been their ‘Messiah’ on so many occasions that a particularly underwhelming display at the Stadio Olimpico was difficult for his faithful following to process.
Not only was the five-time Ballon d’Or winner unable to save his side from elimination, but following a 40th career hat-trick against Leganes over the weekend, he was wholly ineffective and that’s difficult sight to digest.
He uncharacteristically relinquished possession an alarming 19 times, while his count of 62 touches in the game was only 13 more than goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen registered.
Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain brand of football from Barcelona. They’ve not always been an all-conquering force over that time but their ability to dominate possession, attack the opposition and create a host of chances has never eluded them.
Ernesto Valverde has transformed them into a more compact unit but in Rome, caution turned to passivity and composure switched to anxiety. While the defeat and subsequent elimination is a heavy blow, the manner of it is far more disconcerting. Holding a three-goal advantage from the first leg, it’s understandable that the Catalans were not inclined to go on the front foot, but they almost entirely spared Alisson’s goal of any threat.
Leaving Ousmane Dembele on the bench until the 85th minute when Philippe Coutinho wasn’t available either, was a baffling call from Valverde. The manager’s failure to respond to his side’s obvious troubles by utilising his bench was also hard to comprehend.
Given Barcelona’s reluctance to commit bodies forward and force a way through Roma’s defence, one would have imagined that would at least hold them in good stead at the back, but that was hardly the case.
Despite their impressive defensive record this season, Valverde’s side were consistently put under pressure by a pretty fundamental – albeit excellently executed – approach. They were caught out by balls over the top far too easily and seemed ill-equipped to contend with crosses, particularly ones that targeted their full-backs as the likes of Edin Dzeko and Patrik Schick got plenty of joy.
Their improvement at the back is something Barcelona have prided themselves upon this season but even that aspect of their game evaded them on this occasion, leaving Valverde with nothing to hang his hat on.
Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic has fractured a finger in his left hand and will need an operation, the club announced on Wednesday.
Rakitic sustained the injury during Barca’s shock 3-0 defeat to Roma on Tuesday as the Catalans were knocked out of the Champions League quarter-finals on away goals.
A statement from the club said Rakitic had suffered a fracture in a “metacarpal bone in the first finger of his left hand”, adding the Croatia international would undergo surgery on Wednesday.
Rakitic may miss Saturday’s La Liga game at home to Valencia, when Barcelona can extend their unbeaten run in La Liga to 39 games and break the record set by Real Sociedad in 1980.
Ernesto Valverde’s side sit top of the table, 11 points clear of Atletico Madrid.
The Catalan club held a 4-1 first-leg advantage ahead of the return match in Rome on Tuesday night, but goals from Edin Dzeko, Daniele De Rossi and Kostas Manolas secured an unlikely 3-0 victory for the Italian outfit and sealed their place in the last four on away goals.
As a result, Barcelona’s treble ambitions have been scuppered and questions have been raised about their mentality, as the Spanish side failed to progress past the quarter-final stage for the third successive season.
Ernesto Valverde’s team look on course to reclaim La Liga as they hold an 11-point lead over Atletico Madrid with seven matches remaining, but that has not stopped the Spanish press from condemning their poor performance at the Stadio Olimpico.
The headline of newspaper Mundo Deportivo read “The fall of Rome” and the Catalan-based publication continued with a picture of Valverde on his haunches adding: “Barca KO’d in the quarters” and “Dzeko, De Rossi and Manolas all score for superior Roma”.
In an editoral, Mundo Deportivo also critically analysed the Barcelona boss’ resistance against squad rotation, stating: “Europe saw a Barca that was unrecognisable, without spark, without shaft, without endurance, conditioned by the pressure and the intensity of Roma.
“In 2018, Barcelona has played 24 games. And in these three and a half months, Valverde has opted for an almost fixed block to which he has given little respite.
“Nine players have been starters in over 15 games. Valverde has continued to trust some men beyond the limit.”
Madrid-based newspaper AS used a picture of the third goal for their front page, while also commenting: “Roma were better than Barca from pitch to pitch”.
Marca, Spain’s biggest-selling sports daily, had the headline of “Total failure in Europe”, which was accompanied with a picture of a dismayed Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, while also referencing the exit of Manchester City under former manager Pep Guardiola.
Marca also launched a scathing attack on the management style of Valverde, which read: “Ernesto Valverde is conservative. He doesn’t like to risk much and on Tuesday night that approach took its toll.
“Valverde has put everything on winning La Liga and by focussing on avoiding losing a championship that was already won he has burnt out his players. The lack of freshness was clear to see in Rome.
“Valverde’s conservatism was also seen through the way the team was set up, as they were more worried about conceding goals than scoring their own away goal to kill the tie. The poor management of the substitutions was the icing on the cake.”
Catalan-based publication Sport branded the defeat on their front page as: “Failure without excuses”, while their match report headline read: “Blaugrana embarrassed in Champions League”.