The strangest aspect of Barcelona’s 3-0 defeat to Roma on Tuesday was how predictable it seems in retrospect.
Nobody — or at least no more than a tiny handful of people — can be said to have seen it coming, and yet all the warning signs were there, not merely in Roma’s excellence at home in European competition this season but in Barcelona’s laxity. Everything that was said after their 4-0 defeat to Paris St.Germain last season remains true, and the symptoms were readily apparent in their last-16 victory over Chelsea.
Look at that first Roma goal. Daniele De Rossi had the ball in the center of the pitch. He looked up. He had time to see the run of Edin Dzeko, time to measure his pass. Between De Rossi and the area into which he floated the ball were two slightly rickety lines of four. In the distance, behind him, walking back, was Lionel Messi. A little closer, in a half-jog, was Luis Suarez. Nobody was putting pressure on De Rossi. The pass was still difficult, but it was made far easier by the fact that, in the early stages of a Champions League quarterfinal second leg, he was given the time and space to measure it.
Messi is 30 now and in the 14th season of his professional career. If he is unable quite to summon the energy of old, it is perhaps not a huge surprise. He remains an extraordinary player, but a key part of that now is that the minimalism that has always characterised his genius now extends to his movement.
Watch him from the start of a game and he ambles about, spending the first five or ten minutes assessing the opposition, looking for their weaknesses. That is why his third-minute goal in the last 16 against Chelsea was the second earliest he has ever scored in a game. In his entire career for club and country he has only scored nine non-penalty goals in the first five minutes of matches.
Messi, of course, has to be accommodated. There is no point asking him to be something different. He is what he is, and that is undeniably beneficial. He remains generally team-focused, but the days when Pep Guardiola encouraged him not merely to be the best in the world with the ball but the best without it feel a long time ago. But that does make additional demands on those around him. If Messi is to play like he does, the other nine outfielders must take on additional responsibility. Suarez is now 31 and, on the evidence of Tuesday, either no longer has the energy or inclination to be Messi’s foil.
The 4-4-2 Ernesto Valverde seems to prefer is, presumably, designed to provide a platform that does not demand a huge workload from Messi. Two banks of four, if compact, is a solid base. But the problem for Barca is that they never seem particularly compact. In the Chelsea game, Willian in particular rampaged through the midfield. Sergio Busquets, such an undervalued part of Barca’s great sides, was repeatedly isolated in the center, a particular issue given his lack of pace is even more pronounced these days.
The question then, is how Barca, with such obvious flaws, can be 11 points clear at the top of the Spanish table, unbeaten in 38 league games. To suggest that the level in la Liga is not high enough feels inadequate as an explanation given the success of Spanish sides in European competition. The answer, perhaps, is that the nature of the threat they face in Spain is different, that the football is slower and more technical than the challenges posed by the likes of Chelsea and Roma. Their aura, perhaps, means domestically that opponents subconsciously accept a narrow defeat as the best possible outcome, whereas in knockout competition everything is focused on the short-term and sides are more willing to accept the risk of a heavy defeat if it increases the possibility of victory.
But whatever the reason, three Champions League quarterfinal defeats in a row tells their own story. In the past two seasons particularly, Barca have looked too slow and too disorganized to prosper in European competition, cracks over which even Messi’s brilliance cannot paper.
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Not even Lionel Messi magic can hide fact Barcelona are brittle