Barcelona host Valencia on Saturday in their first game since they crashed out of the Champions League in midweek. The shocking nature of that 3-0 loss to Roma has soured the mood at the Nou Camp, even though they return to La Liga action with a chance to make history.
If they avoid defeat, the Blaugrana will have gone unbeaten for 39 games – a new La Liga record.
Here are three talking points ahead of Saturday’s game.
HOW DEMORALISED ARE BARCA?
The critics have been out in full force since Barcelona’s shocking collapse in Rome. Relinquishing a three-goal lead was an unfathomable failure for everyone involved with the club and Spanish football – not least the media, where the reaction was equal parts glee among the Madrid press and horror in Barcelona.
Players usually trot out lines about how they avoid paying too much attention to the media, but it’s hard to imagine that the reaction hasn’t permeated the Catalan side’s camp. Even if it hasn’t, there’s the obvious fact the players themselves will still be digesting the three-goal loss, possibly still going through a period of disbelief.
All things considered, it’s hardly the best mood in which to be approaching a game like Saturday’s, against an intense Valencia side ready to pounce on any weaknesses. Ernesto Valverde has a job on his hands to get his side out of the doldrums.
Barça's dressing room deeply annoyed with Valverde for the setup vs Roma last night. Trouble brewing... Here's hoping it doesn't affect the league and cup final.— Rafael Hernández (@RafaelH117) April 11, 2018
INVINCIBLES A WORTHY GOAL
Amid all the doom and gloom of their European exit – all of which is fair and understandable, given the value the Champions League holds for all of Europe’s leading clubs – Barcelona can still accomplish something special this season.
No team has ever gone a full season unbeaten in a 20-team La Liga, and failure in Europe won’t diminish that. After all, Arsenal were dumped out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals during their famous Invincibles season, same as Barcelona, and Juventus weren’t even in Europe when they went unbeaten in Serie A in 2011-12.
Would it have been even better if Barcelona could have clubbed together an unbeaten season with a third treble? Of course. Does that make an unbeaten season any less of an accomplishment? No. Valverde and Barca deserve criticism for the manner of their Champions League exit, but becoming Spain’s first Invincibles would still be historic.
Barcelona have equalled the record for most consecutive LaLiga games unbeaten.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) April 7, 2018
38 games without defeat. 🔵🔴 pic.twitter.com/1fGvrwgVuE
VALENCIA’S STRONG SEASON NEEDS EXCLAMATION POINT
Valencia are a creditable third in the table at the moment, and could even finish an impressive second. What their season has lacked is one signature result, a statement win that says, “we are here.”
They’ve come close – they had the lead against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu this season before drawing 2-2, and similarly saw a 1-0 lead slip against Barcelona in the reverse fixture. So far however, the only results that would qualify are their wins over Sevilla, and the Andalusians’ poor form this season takes the sheen off of those victories.
They’re more or less guaranteed of a top-four finish, which is a stunning turnaround in fortunes given how low the club had fallen in recent years, battling relegation two seasons in a row. Now that they’re back whey they belong in the top four, on Saturday, they can tie a bow on their season.
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.