Barca 4, Roma 1, aka “One hand behind their back”

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.

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Written by:

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

18 Comments

  1. Víctor
    April 5, 2018

    It takes something special to be a team that wins 4-1 and still have supporters complaining about it. Saying things like: this is not Barcelona’s way, Barcelona is about attacking.

    Meanwhile, at the same time, Guardiola (almost a “god” among those fans) lost 3-0 against Liverpool… yep, that’s right, his team failed to score a goal against Liverpool, a team that does not have a great quality defense.

  2. Víctor
    April 5, 2018

    By the way, Own Goal got very busy these days… he also scored one for Bayern Munich… twice, to be fair, but the second against Sevilla was awarded to Thiago…

  3. Dar_vincy
    April 5, 2018

    One notable inclusion in the starting line up that I found particularly delightful was the presence of Semedo. And it was patently noteworthy the solidity he brings to our defence coupled with some promising attacking forays just lacking the consummate end product, which makes you wonder exactly why the coach incomprehensibly relegated him to a backup role before now. It would not be utterly surprising if he gets dropped for Roberto in the coming games.
    Another mind-boggling decision is the curious case of Denis Suarez. Even if he didn’t unleash fireworks in the the few games he featured early in the season, you could at least notice the endeavor and positivity in his play. To come up with such positive performance these past two games is laudatory for someone who was confined to the football wilderness for over four months or thereabouts. To think he, painfully, persisted with Gomes – who had yet another anonymous and ineffective display yesterday – perplexingly defies logic. Don’t be surprised if he returns to a lengthy oblivion as soon as he performs poorly in the next game he features. We can notice the same trend with Mina, whose last game for us was solid, but has found himself not even making match day squad even when it’s as clear as day that our first choice defensive pairing (badly) needs rest.
    Meanwhile, while this game was not in anyway a below-par performance from the team, the difficulty in generating chances could be why fans are particularly concerned, the ungraspable cession of possession notwithstanding. Without our customary wingplay, perforating a defensively attentive Roma backline always proved a herculean task, but somehow, we got the job done. Going by the body language of our players – which could also be interpreted as fatigue – there seemed to be an aura of complacency owing to the quality of opposition we were playing in contrast to how we approached the Chelsea game or the marquee games we’ve played this season. I’d rather that was the case than fatigue emerging to be our greatest adversary at this stage of the season.

  4. mvarfi
    April 5, 2018

    Generally speaking, it seems that aside from talent, tactics and style of play, the psychology of a group of players doesn’t get discussed enough in the media. Barca is where it is in huge part because of its wisdom. There’s nothing flashy or in-your-face quality about this team. It reminds me of an Albanian expression: “Qente le te lehin, karvani le te shkoj perpara”. It roughly translates to: “Let the dogs bark, the caravan moves ahead”.
    As far as earlier in the season, all around favorites is concerned, PSG and Real Madrid showed that they were a tad too bratty and cocky, respectively, for their own good, and while a lot of people were pretty sure about Man City’s chances, Pep Guardiola was not among that lot, When asked about his team being one of CL favorites, he simply asked back: “Who does Messi play for?”. The response being: “Barcelona”, he went on to say: “So they’re the favorites.”

    • mvarfi
      April 5, 2018

      Thanks again Kxevin. Reading your pieces is always a treat.

  5. Jassper
    April 5, 2018

    Some players have been injured at one point or the other this season, so was own-goal.. All the same, great writeup man, you’re just like this team always winning my heart with these write-ups over the years.. its should be a reminder to that section of the culerverse that are refusing to enjoy what EV has done with this team. they’ve been waiting for that loss that would allow them point fingers, but time and time again its not coming forth.

  6. squeen
    April 5, 2018

    “…The three pillars of this team were all not anything approximating perfect, or even up to their usual standard of excellence, and still…”

    I think this is a telling point, and why things are “working” (knock on wood) this season so far: it’s the “new kids” e.g. Roberto, Semedo, Umtiti and Rakitic who are asked to do the lion’s share of running/defending donkey-work (to borrow your phrase). That way the “greybeards” have the wind left to make the strategic moves. While that’s certainly an over simplification of how things actually play out in a match (i.e. look how much running Suarez does off-ball, and look at how much defending Iniesta puts in), it is a bit of an ideal of how things are supposed to transition on a team.

    Also might explain why Delembe is having a hard time nailing down a spot in the starting XI. Perhaps it’s hard going from being your team’s phenom to a donkey.

  7. christembassykapo
    April 5, 2018

    Well well, as usual great sure kxevin, i really and always look forward to your analysis, and to everyone else, it’s really great beign a part of this forum, straight up tactics analysis, no insults boy Am i delighted, compared to other platforms, am grateful thanks.

    As for our match display, well we can all relate with it, we all love and prefer the end result but but watching the mixture take place largely because you can’t particularly pin point what’s happening, can bee annoying sometimes.

    But i rather win 4-1 the weird way then loose 3-0 the flashy way

    I hope our young talents will see more games

  8. Old_Messi
    April 6, 2018

    People complaining about the 4-1 win always want to see Barca play the orgasmic football that tortured Real 6-2 and 5-0. For them, Barca’s performance is crap if if does not include 70%+ possession, non-stop attack and goal scoring chances for 90 minutes, non-stop occupation of opponent half for 90 mins, and zero opponent goal chance.

    • Víctor
      April 7, 2018

      It’s gonna be interesting, this week, Guardiola, the master of that wonderful football lost 3-0 in the UCL QF 1st leg and just today, his team bottled a 2-0 lead… against Mourinho.

      Sure thing, it might be that the international break affected his team, but damn… he is clearly getting exposed.

      Also, is Suarez back to his clumsy former self? I do not get why Valverde can start Alcacer over him, especially now that La Liga is almost won… Alcacer is not the greatest player, but I do see him being somewhat more effective than Suarez at the moment, to be honest…

      • georgjorge
        April 7, 2018

        Suarez has always been clumsy ; ), but he’s not ineffective at all right now. He’s not had a great game so far (though that shot from the Roberto cross which nearly went in was a great feat), but he’s not having a bad time of season.

        • Víctor
          April 7, 2018

          Yes, but I mean… clumsy even for his standards… maybe he needs a rest… besides, I don’t see the downside of playing Alcacer instead of him on several of these last games…

      • Grindelwald
        April 7, 2018

        Suarez had a pretty poor game. Velverde decision to continue leaving out Mina is beyond my compréhension. Dembele crossing is very good and his passing is improving, he just needs to improve his ball retention ability and overall aggressiveness!

  9. georgjorge
    April 7, 2018

    Very very solid first half so far tonight! Good defending on the few occasions where it was needed, Coutinho providing that extra creativity and danger alongside Messi, so it’s two goals against zero shots at goals – and Leganés still not putting pressure on Barca when they have the ball.

    That freekick for the first goal – I had to think about Kxevin calling Messi a witch. Probably not possible to hit it any more perfectly.

  10. mvarfi
    April 7, 2018

    Love Titi, but I surely have missed Vermaelen…

  11. TITO
    April 8, 2018

    Semedo and Dembele were quite good on that right side.
    Verm when he plays is always excellent.
    Rakitic was also quite good, for several games in a row already.
    Just dont get it why is Pique played when is clear that he needs rest. Mina could have replaced him in a game like this.
    Or maybe an unbeaten season in La liga crowned as champions is more to these guys than taking another CL cup.
    Dont know, but surely some of them need some rest and fresheness.

  12. georgjorge
    April 8, 2018

    Atleti in ultra-defensive mode today, but it got the job (kinda) done. Now Barcelona will have to lose FOUR out of SEVEN to not win the league, something they just won’t do.

    Oh, and Sevilla – the team who kicked out ManUnited and nearly gave Barcelona a beating in the league – lost four goal to nil to Celta Vigo and an Iago Aspas hattrick. They sometimes play well and they sometimes don’t, but they always entertain ; )

  13. Víctor
    April 8, 2018

    So, it’s 11 point lead again… with 7 games remaining… but, hey, there’s still people that want Valverde sacked, even when they expected Barcelona (at this point) to be fighting to not fall behind 3rd place in La Liga and to be knocked out of the UCL already…

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