To paraphrase an old song, “Everything’s coming up Roma … “
Last season, man did I get the call wrong. During Champions League my assertion was that if Barça got past Chelsea, they would win the whole thing. They got past the one team best equipped to derail a treble quest (or so I thought), albeit barely, but to my view things were on track.
What was easy to miscalculate, even if many didn’t, was the physical and psychological fatigue of chasing everything — a treble, an undefeated season, sending a club legend out in style — everything. It was easy to think that a team being so close to the promised land could find one last little push, that veteran moxie even in tired legs.
Atop all of that was international duties and a short, short squad. And yes, now is the time to mention, once again since everyone is asking and thinking about it, Rome.
It all began with the above factors. It continued with an away goal that was, really, a lapse in concentration but that gave Roma the chance to find an exploitable gap. Note how often they tried to isolate Dzeko on Alba, with success.
At the Stadio Olimpico, Valverde went for sentiment, and football. His XI didn’t take into account the necessities of how his team would need to adapt its play in the face of a rabid Roma press. So instead of starting Paulinho, who would have been perfect for bringing down and holding those long balls that Ter Stegen was pumping over the press, there was Iniesta, being batted about like a leaf in the wind, Messi, whose game that isn’t and Suarez, whose game that isn’t, either. So those balls just went right back to Roma, who surged forward again.
Psychologically, the team fell apart as a consequence of a season of pressure. The team wanted it all, and so did its coach. A first-season, unbeaten treble? Of course you chase hell out of that. But that pressure told, and Roma made them crack as they forgot how to play football. They panicked, which was a weird thing to see happen to such a group. Valverde should have brought on Paulinho and Dembele a lot earlier, taken steps to calm the situation that everyone could see was running away from him.
But how can you not have confidence in that starting eleven? Paulinho for Iniesta? Come on.
This year, against Liverpool going into an away leg, the same situation exists: a three-goal aggregate lead going into the deciding away leg. Of course people are going to ask about Rome. A year isn’t all THAT long, right? And as much as Valverde can assure and give the right answers, he can’t guarantee that it isn’t going to happen because trauma shapes expectation. It’s hard to trust a pot handle once you’ve burned skin off your hand.
Football plays its part in a desperate quest to find a permanent solution from a temporary condition. Everyone is asking about Roma. What few are doing is making it clear why Roma can’t and won’t happen this time. It’s like all of the key people in the debacle learned, but none of us did.
The biggest thing the club did in the summer was to get the exact kind of center back that would have been able to help prevent Rome from happening, in Clement Lenglet. He’s a reactive CB. When Umtiti was off being proactive as is his and the team’s style, Dzeko was making hay against an isolated Alba.
The other thing the club did was to get a lot deeper. Malcom was brought in, as was Arturo Vidal, another player acquired with the very specific lessons of Rome in mind, a lion willing to fight for every ball.
They also learned to play without Dembele, a thing that given his injury record and length of time required to find form after being injured, was sound policy.
The defense in general got better on set pieces, and better at controlling space to allow it to react to danger. We see an opponent applying pressure and panic, because in the past, Barcelona defenses just weren’t very good at withstanding that. This season is different.
And while unplanned, the team lost a couple of Liga matches, and early in the go-round, so no stressing about any kinds of records. Last season, everyone screamed about chasing the unbeaten season, but the players wanted it. This season, the losses were freeing. Valverde rotated, used B team players in Copa matches because their levels were high enough, even rested Messi from time to time, all with the objective that the group is on track to achieve.
They advanced past the quarterfinals this year, which is one bugbear broken. The only thing that is the same from this year to last is the three-goal aggregate lead. Everything else is different. People want to cling to Rome. What the team does, what a good team with a good coach does, is take mistakes and learn from them.
It’s unclear how many times Messi replayed that moment he had the keeper dead to rights in front of goal in Rome, and punted a weak shot right at him. Enough for him to understand what happened, enough to be stronger. So has his teammates.
There aren’t many safe bets on unknown actions, but Barcelona advancing today is as safe as they come. Overconfidence? Arrogance? No, though it’s easy to mistake confidence for those qualities. Same with belief. The team has belief, its coach has belief, atop everything else.
What do we as supporters have? Doubt. Because we can’t know what they know, can’t know what they see when they look at each other in training, before each match. All we know is our own fears, our own worries, and we ask, “What if Rome happens again?” It won’t. It can’t. And if you think that it can, you have watched Barça this season, but you haven’t really seen Barça this season.
On to the final!