Many of us are old enough to remember when Barca was supposed to be poor, Manchester City and PSG were Champions League favorites and Real Madrid was going to be the best team anyone had ever witnessed.
Guardiola had rectified all of the roster errors and added quality, while PSG scooped up Neymar and Mbappe adding to a team that almost eliminated Barcelona last season. Real Madrid made astute signings in the summer, running rings around the Barcelona technical staff. Barca lost Neymar, added some kid, a hack from China and an untested RB from Portugal. And the coach wasn’t the right coach (again). It was going to be brutal.
Here we are in April. PSG is out of Europe, City got tonked 3-0 by Liverpool, leaving its faithful to hope its genius coach can pull something out of his sleeve, and Real Madrid is out of play in two of the three legs of the treble — something many had them tapped to grab this season — now alive only in Champions League.
Meanwhile, Barca keeps not losing, to the tune of being in play for the treble, having a nigh-unassailable lead in the league (they would have to lose three of eight matches when they haven’t lost all season). They dispatched Chelsea with ease, and swatted Roma aside in the first leg of that quarterfinal. And many of the same people who were calling the team stank in July are wondering about preferred Champions League semifinal opponents.
Even after calmly dealing with the third-placed team in Serie A, the consensus among many is that Barca didn’t play that well, that Roma could have had this or that, that if everything lined up perfectly the tie could already be over, with Roma looking to advance. You have to give them two pillow-soft penalties and ignore the one Barca would also have earned if the ref was being benevolent. You have to continue in a fantasy world of what-ifs, of Roma being perfect and Barca not hitting the post, not essentially having their way with Roma until a late lapse of concentration allowed Valverde an irritant to point to, an away goal.
Barca played incisive attacking football, dynamic, direct and effective. Roma produced nothing, was allowed to create nothing. Yes two of the goals were own goals, but De Rossi saved Messi the bother of extending his hamstring to smash it past the keeper, and Umtiti was on the doorstep with an open goal, the damage having already been done.
And all of this happened with Messi not looking anything like his extraordinary self, Busquets playing like a player who took a painkilling injection before the match and Iniesta mostly looking like every one of his 34 years of age. The three pillars of this team were all not anything approximating perfect, or even up to their usual standard of excellence, and still, Barca has a three-goal lead to take to Rome, where Roma will have to attack to make up the deficit and hope that Barca don’t score.
And oh, yeah, Barca also has the stingiest defense in the Champions League. So good luck with that.
The only surprise in the XI was Nelson Semedo, back from an injury spell. But that inclusion made sense, because Dembele was defensively slack and lazy against Sevilla, something a few of us noticed and apparently, so did his coach. Semedo allowed Valverde to get a lot of the attacking thrust provided by Dembele, with significantly more defensive security.
It also allowed him to get Sergi Roberto into midfield, to bring his work rate and intelligence to bear buttressing a wounded Busquets, and liberate Rakitic to put in an MOTM-type performance.
It was a remarkable match to watch, even anticipating the expected marker shift as expectations adapt to meet current conditions. Barca was going to be ajudged to not have played well because of past magic and potential of a suddenly majestic, treble-contending side that has done a lot with smoke, mirrors and playing key players a lot more than anyone, including its coach, would like.
In the second half, Barca went into match management mode. Roma was allowed more of the ball, but even this was dealt with until Dzeko got on the wrong side of Alba, who must have felt like he was trying to climb, or at least see around, a tree. And Ter Stegen apparently got bored and needed some drama, the only reason anyone can come up with for his glitch then magnificent save.
When Liverpool hung onto Coutinho until the winter window, I noted that they did with an eye toward weakening a potential Champions League rival. Hardly anyone took note then, but imagine Coutinho being able to spell Iniesta now, and how much more potent Barca would be ahead of a potential matchup with that very same Liverpool.
The other thing to note in that second half is that Barca looked like a team that went deep into the pain cave to draw on the weekend. That 2-2 at Sevilla was expensive, and the team looked it late as Roma got to almost every 50/50 ball first. The addition of Denis Suarez had the same effect as at Sevilla on the attacking end, which helped in securing the important fourth goal to restore the three-goal cushion.
Sevilla showed the same aftereffects against Bayern Munich, and went down to defeat. That tie isn’t over, but Sevilla will have to pull something majestic out of the hat.
The biggest concern for Valverde right now is where to get the rest for important players, on a team that is aware of its chance to make history by having an undefeated Liga season. Messi, Pique, Busquets, Iniesta and Luis Suarez all need rest. The weekend brings a home date against Leganes, then the Tuesday return leg against Roma followed by Valencia in a few days’ time. Then there is away to Celta, followed by the Copa final against Sevilla. The schedule is brutal, along with the reality that the Liga title isn’t mathematically wrapped up yet, and players want to make history.
Imagine being Pique, Busquets, Messi or Iniesta, with two trebles and an undefeated league title to your name. Those players will run themselves into the ground to make that kind of history, even when common sense (this is where a coach comes in) dictates circumspection. This Roma match was about as smooth as expected, and came at a perfect time for the team, given the state that it is in.
Next steps will be rest, keeping key players free of an injury that will keep them out of the lineup, and hoping for the massive boon of a Real Madrid victory against Atletico on the weekend. Should that happen, Valverde would breathe a massive sigh of relief as he planned rotation XIs for the rest of the Liga season.
At present, the team has some issues to resolve, all born of its entirely unexpected success. It is not only alive, but unbeaten in league and Champions League, and in the Copa final. It will have to manage all of those while trying to make history. Smoothly dealing with Roma helps. The rest is up to fate, luck and those capricious football gods who returned Own Goal to the roster just in time.