At the day-before press availability, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was on the podium, and was asked about last year, and that match.
“(I) don’t have to say too much (about Rome). It was hard.”
That wild, lost night in the Eternal City brought with it, trauma. Players don’t really care about that stuff except to the extent that they can learn from it. They absorb lessons, then shrug it off then move on. It’s the supporters who never, ever recover, for whom every answer to any question is “Yeah, well what about Rome?”
For the players, the team lost a match, and the opportunity to advance in Champions League. The supporters seem to have lost everything, most crucially faith and confidence.
A look back at the match reveals tactical blunders, a frightented team that wasn’t playing anything like its potential, and mistake after mistake from a group that ultimately cowered on the rocks, waiting to die. Iniesta knew, they all knew, yet nobody could do anything about the inevitable outcome.
There has been the lion’s share of the blame for Valverde, because that is how things go for the unfavored. But that loss was on everyone. It started with the wrong XI for conditions, but how do those veteran players forget how to play football? It’s worth taking a wholistic view of that debacle before consigning it to the bin of history.
Ter Stegen was asked about it, everyone is thinking about it. But it makes no sense to.
Last year’s team was, essentially, the same team from the year before, and Paulinho. Coutinho was there but couldn’t play, Dembele just coming back from another injury. All season, match after match, the XI had to grind it out because there wasn’t anyone. There was a full roster, but meaningful depth was spare to nonexistent. The same group had to play, of necessity rather than choice. And everything came to a head.
This year’s team is in a completely different place. Its key players will have had a week’s rest between matches, and the return leg is at home. The depth available this year allowed Valverde to play a league match that rested Messi, Suarez, Pique, Sergi Roberto, Busquets, Semedo, Lenglet and Rakitic.
Circumstances certainly helped in that Huesca is a minnow, headed down and built to stay that way. But the depth, not only on the first team but on B team players close enough to move up and play for the first team, such as Riqui Puig and Moussa Wague. Dembele is fit. Messi is fresh and fit, despite a bit of impromptu rhinoplasty courtesy of Chris Smalling.
Tactically, the team is also in a different place as its manager learned from that debacle, something witnessed not only in the depth of the squad he demanded, but in how he uses that squad. There can be more rotation because there is more quality. He has also managed to create conditions that allow the best Messi to thrive, a player who is more decisive than he has been, more dangerous and more tactically capricious.
Last season, Barça was the best team in world football that didn’t show up for two key matches. This season, Barça is the best team in world football, period. That doesn’t mean it will win Champions League. It does mean that the team has not been as well equipped to win a treble, physically, roster-wise and tactically, since the Luis Enrique treble.
After the first leg of the tie against Manchester United, the worst victory anyone has ever seen from some worldviews, Barça has a 0-1 advantage, with a massive away goal. United will have to come out chasing the match, early and often. This will leave them vulnerable to a front three of — most likely — Messi, Suarez and Dembele.
The last time United was down against an opponent, PSG, they turned the tie, but were at home, and it was PSG, a group with a psychological complexity when it comes to closing out a Champions League tie. And as Ter Stegen noted in his press event, Barça will play differently than PSG. Will we worry about the match tomorrow? Of course. Worry comes wrapped in blaugrana for supporters of the team. Should we worry? Not as much as we probably will.
In the Theatre of Dreams, Barcelona put on — after a couple of well-timed and planned subs — a display of possession football that was a delight. The goal came after more than 40 passes. That first leg was “bad” because of expectation rather than reality, and the myth that United is a bad football team. It isn’t. But it is a team that Barça is better than, as was demonstrated.
What will happen tomorrow? Who knows. But whatever happens, it won’t be because of anything from the past, any lost nights in an Eternal City. We should banish those ghosts once and for all.