Champions League: The loss that no one saw coming but Barcelona only have themselves to blame

Andy West 11/04/2018
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Barcelona players try to come to terms with the loss

It would be easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that everyone knew Barcelona were in a vulnerable position and that their shocking capitulation at Roma was on the cards.

But to be truthful, absolutely nobody saw this coming and the Catalan club are in a state of shock as they attempt to digest exactly what went wrong in the Italian capital.

Perhaps there was an element of complacency following the 4-1 victory in last week’s first leg, which appeared to have sewn up the tie and made the return match a formality.

Manager Ernesto Valverde was extremely anxious to guard against taking anything for granted, repeatedly stating in increasingly vexed tones during Monday’s pre-match press conference that his team still faced a tough task to get the result they needed for a semi-final berth.

We can be sure that Valverde also repeated those messages of caution in the dressing room, but there is a possibility they went into one ear of his players and straight out of the other.

“We are Barcelona and we’ve got a 4-1 lead against Roma from the first leg,” they may have been thinking. “Of course we’re going through.”

But that can only be a small part of the answer, if indeed it is relevant at all, because any feelings of casual entitlement among the visiting players will have quickly disappeared when Roma raced into an early lead.

From that moment onwards, it was abundantly clear that Barca had a fight on their hands, and if they had entered the game with a sense of complacency they certainly can’t have felt that way after the reborn Edin Dzeko fired home the opener.

Even the shock of that early goal, however, could not do anything to lift the visiting team and they continued to play as though they were in a trance. They were second to every loose ball, sloppily inaccurate in their distribution, slow to close down Roma’s runners and feeble in the challenge.

Simply outplayed, all over the pitch.

Although the inability of Lionel Messi – who sent two free-kicks well off target – to lift his team will inevitably dominate much of the post-match discussion, in truth the biggest shock was just how vulnerable Barca looked defensively throughout the game.

The biggest improvement effected by Valverde has been to tighten up his team defensively – not just in terms of the back four, but also the overall structure of the team to prevent the opposition from generating significant threat.

The team’s stats of just 16 goals conceded in 31 league games (less than half the total allowed by Real Madrid, for comparison’s sake) speaks for itself.

Barca have been extremely good defensively this season, but there was absolutely no sign of that solidity on this occasion as Roma followed a fairly straightforward game-plan – get the ball wide and deliver deep crosses to expose the lack of height of full-backs Nelson Semedo and Jordi Alba – and the visitors simply had no answers.

A batch of outstanding saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen was the only reason Barca stayed ahead in the tie for so long, but even the German keeper was culpable for the first goal as he stayed rooted to his line, allowing Dzeko to score.

The second goal came through some calamitous defending from Gerard Pique, who has been top class this season but, like fellow central defender Samuel Umtiti, looked dreadfully uncomfortable all night.

So there were individual errors and a lack of collective coherence, and the players must carry a great deal of responsibility for playing so poorly.

But there will also undoubtedly be severe criticism for Valverde, who has earned a lot of praise so far this season but will now experience the other side of the coin.

The coach will face particular stick for his failure to do anything to change the game, not making any substitutions until the final ten minutes even though his team was performing terribly all night.

Leaving Ousmane Dembele on the bench until the 85th minute was an especially timid move, and Valverde’s failure to act could now even throw his future at the club into doubt.

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Roma ratings as the Serie A side knock Barcelona out the Champions League in stunning fashion

Tom Biggs 11/04/2018
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Roma celebrate victory over Barcelona

On an incredible night at the Stadio Olimpico, Roma produced a stunning performance to knock Barcelona out of the Champions League on away goals (4-4).

The Serie A side knew they had to score three times to stand any chance of progressing, while keeping Lionel Messi and co quiet at the other end, following a 4-1 defeat in the first leg in Spain.

They completed the stunning comeback in style, with goals from Edin Dzeko, Daniele De Rossi and Kostas Manolas enough to seal their progress to the last four of the competition.

Check out our Roma player ratings…

STARTING XI

Alisson – 7: Incredibly he was rarely tested, but when required he showed just why he’s so highly rated.

Federico Fazio – 7: Made up for his first-leg error with a composed display helping keep Luis Suarez quiet.

Juan Jesus – 8: A rock at the back. More interceptions (3) and clearances (6) than any of his teammates.

Kostas Manolas – 8: The hero. After defending superbly he popped up with the crucial third goal. A stunning header.

Alessandro Florenzi – 7: A tireless display down the right-hand side, but at times he lacked composure on the ball.

Aleksandar Kolarov – 8: At 32, he’s still got bundles of energy. Kept both Sergi Roberto and Nelson Semedo busy.

Daniele De Rossi – 9: A real captain’s display. Terrific assist for the opener and emphatic penalty to make it 2-0.

Kevin Strootman – 7: Did well in supporting the back three with three tackles and one interception to halt Barcelona.

Radja Nainggolan – 7: Wasn’t able to get on the ball and dictate the game as he’d have liked.

Edin Dzeko – 9: Never let the defenders rest. Took his goal really well and also won the penalty.

Patrik Schick – 6: A Champions League debut to remember for the youngster, but individually failed to shine.

Substitutes

Cengiz Under – 7: Came on and looked lively. It was from his corner that Manolas won it for Roma.

Stephan El Shaarawy – 6: Provided support for Kolarov late on, but didn’t have time to make an impact going forward.

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Mohamed Salah is to Liverpool what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Real Madrid

Alam Khan 11/04/2018
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Magical Mohamed Salah struck a crucial 39th goal of the season to send Liverpool into the Champions League semi finals at the expense of English rivals Manchester City.

With a 3-0 deficit to overturn from the first leg, Pep Guardiola’s side got the perfect start in only the second minute as Virgil van Dijk was hurried into a mistake and Fernandinho slipped through a pass for Raheem Sterling and he teed up Gabriel Jesus to slot home.

The hosts were dominant after that and Bernardo Silva curled an effort against the post before a controversial and crucial moment.

A poor punch by Loris Karius struck James Milner, not Jesus, and bounced back goalwards where Leroy Sane touched home.

But referee Antonio Lahoz ruled the goal out for offside. An irate Guardiola was sent to the stands at half time for venting his feelings on the matter and City’s hopes were sunk.

Salah chipped home to level on the night before Roberto Firmino struck a second to seal a 5-1 aggregate success.

SPECIAL SALAH

Mohamed Salah celebrates his equaliser

Mohamed Salah celebrates his equaliser

If ever there was doubt about Mohamed Salah’s current standing, this game should dispel any doubts, end any arguments.

The Egyptian hero has been Liverpool’s talisman all season but hardly had a kick in the first half at the Etihad amid injury concerns and his side’s tactics in sitting deeper.

But when the Reds needed him most, he delivered, landing the knockout blow to City’s hopes and sending his side into the semis.

Salah is to Liverpool what Lionel Messi is to Barcelona, what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Real Madrid. In his debut season at Anfield, his inspirational abilities will see him rank with the legends who have worn red over the years.

Be it Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez. Every team needs a brilliant individual to win the biggest trophies and Salah is Liverpool’s prize guy.

REF RAGE

Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz

Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz

While VAR may not sit well with every football fan and there will always be debatable decisions, there can be few who would want a game ruined by more inept refereeing.

Wasn’t the whole point of technology to stop this? The outcome of a massive game like this, watched by the world, should not hinge on a decision that defied logic and understanding.

It was one that every referee and his assistant should have known about before they were allowed to take the field in a lower league game, let alone one of this magnitude.

When Loris Karius punched out a clearance under pressure and the ball rebounded quite clearly off James Milner and back towards goal, Leroy Sane was not offside as he touched home.

VAR would have confirmed that and 2-0 up at half time, City would have had the greater momentum in their comeback quest. Instead, they were incensed and hurting.

With Guardiola sent to the stands for venting his fury, City lost their commander, their 12th man, on the touchline too. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz had a shocker, missing handballs and failing to act decisively to cut out blatant fouls from Liverpool players like Roberto Firmino who should have been shown two yellow cards rather than be on the pitch to score.

STERLING CENTRAL TO CITY

Raheem Sterling in action against Liverpool

Raheem Sterling in action against Liverpool

It’s been a difficult week for Sterling. Having not started at Liverpool in the first leg, he was handed the main striking role in Saturday’s derby with Manchester United and glaring misses contributed to a 3-2 defeat that denied City the Premier League title.

But it is testament to his character and class that he did not let that affect him against his former club. He did not hide as he produced another enterprising and engaging display to emphasise what a talent he is and integral to City’s future.

The game also highlighted where he is best utilised too. He is no central striker as perhaps the burden of being the main source of goals may be too much and there is no need for that pressure with Sergio Aguero or Gabriel Jesus around.

But playing off Jesus last night he proved a livewire, drifting off the flanks with freedom and an appetite for destruction. It was his hustling of Virgil van Dijk that led to the opener for Jesus and he was a constant threat.

With pace, panache and purpose he is a handful for any defence. At 23, he is only going to get better.

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