Barcelona’s meek capitulation to Roma exposes a deeper malaise
Warning signs were there during Champions League campaign as star players look to have reached the end of the line
Barcelona’s Luis Suarez looks dejected during his side’s defeat to Roma in the Champions League quarter-final, second leg at Stadio Olimpico, Rome. Photograph: Reuters
If it was possible for Barcelona not to become overwhelmed by despair when they fell to Juventus last season, there was no way for them to rationalise their stunning collapse against Roma on Tuesday night. Succumbing to the best team in Italy and a fellow European giant did not feel like a drama, even though they had started the that tie as slight favourites. But folding so meekly against Roma has exposed a deeper malaise.
Roma should not be patronised given they have claimed some serious scalps, from finishing top of a group that contained Atlético Madrid and Chelsea to overcoming the awkward challenge of Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16, to keeping out Lionel Messi over 180 minutes.
It was a formidable effort from Eusebio Di Francesco’s side, who left the Stadio Olimpico in a state of ecstasy as they overturned a 4-1 deficit from the first leg, and they have yet to concede a goal at home in this season’s Champions League. Their next opponents would be foolish to underestimate them.
For all the accolades coming their way, however, Roma are a team lacking obvious star power. They are fourth in Serie A, it is 17 years since their last Scudetto and they had not reached a European Cup semi-final since 1984. Not unreasonably, Barça celebrated drawing them last month – and that is why their third consecutive quarter-final exit smarts so much.
They had travelled to Rome holding what should have been an impregnable lead. Yet the whiff of decline was hanging over them by the end of a riotous evening and the alarming thing for Barcelona is that this has been coming.
The warning signs were there when Neymar departed for Paris Saint-Germain last summer. They lost the Spanish Super Cup to Real Madrid, causing Gerard Piqué to say he felt “inferior” to the team from the Bernabéu for the first time in his career, and although they are set to win La Liga, Ernesto Valverde’s men have rarely convinced in their toughest European assignments.
A 4-1 aggregate victory over Chelsea in the last 16 masked slow and disjointed displays, with Messi seizing on errors, and Barcelona were often bereft of fluency in the first leg against Roma.
In the return, however, Roma found the ruthlessness to target Barcelona’s flaws, highlighting the imbalance of Valverde’s 4-4-2 system and the increasing dependence on Messi. Barça were bereft of penetration in the wide areas, with the full-backs, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo, unable to advance, and nothing damned them more than being outplayed in the area where they used to be untouchable.
The inclusion of Sergi Roberto as an extra shield in midfield revealed how Barcelona have misplaced their identity. There was too much caution and not enough control or incision, but perhaps that was no surprise. Andrés Iniesta, who hinted he might have played his last Champions League game, is 33. Sergio Busquets is 29. A strength has become a weakness and that meant there was little protection for a vulnerable defence, with Edin Dzeko bullying Piqué and Samuel Umtiti.
“We didn’t know how to respond,” Busquets said.
Admittedly there were mitigating circumstances. Philippe Coutinho was cup-tied after forcing his transfer from Liverpool in January. Ousmane Dembélé, who was signed with the Neymar cash, has struggled to regain his rhythm after a thigh injury. It is easy to imagine them thriving when Coutinho and Dembélé are operating in tandem with Messi.
Where Luis Suárez fits in remains to be seen, though. The Uruguayan was the deadliest striker in the world after signing from Liverpool in 2014, combining beautifully with Messi and Neymar at times and destroying the continent’s best defences on his own at others, but he is 31 and his powers are waning.
Suárez’s opportunistic strike in the first leg against Roma was his first goal in the Champions League since March 2017, a staggering statistic, and he spent most of Tuesday night being knocked around by Roma’s defenders, that extra half a yard of pace no longer there, his trademark spikiness never materialising.
It was not just his booking for timewasting that summed up the striker’s lame performance, it was the moment when Iniesta released him on the left and he did not have the speed to escape his markers.
Suárez is approaching the end of the line and he is not alone. Others will have to be replaced if a new imperial era is to begin. Regeneration is required and Valverde, who replaced Luis Enrique last summer, deserves the time to oversee it given that Barça remain unbeaten in the league and face Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final next weekend. Yet there are more questions than answers as the season draws to a complicated close. Difficult decisions must be made. This champion team’s wrinkles are starting to show. – Guardian