Why Barca Fell Short In Europe Again
What an incredibly strange season FC Barcelona are having. After 32 league games the Catalan giants are still unbeaten, a run that stretches back to last season, to 39 LaLiga matches without a loss – a new Spanish top-flight record. A team on such form should be unplayable, right? Not quite. Cracks are once again starting to appear at Barca, but perhaps it's because they were never closed.
Last week, Barca's unforgivable performance against Roma in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final saw the Italian side advance after a dramatic and inspirational 3-0 win in Rome, a result that sent them through on the painful away goal ruling. Jubilant celebrations followed Konstantinos Manolas' late headed goal at the near post, while looks of despair and disgust came over every Barca player's face, and deservedly so. They had managed to throw away a 4-1 first leg lead! Naturally, Roma's comeback shocked me as it did the rest of the footballing world, but the Blaugrana were always going to be found lacking in Europe this season. Well, dear reader, allow me to point out why.
I haven't missed a single league match of Barca's in this campaign. I will say it unambiguously: Ernesto Valverde's men haven't been nearly as dominant as their unbeaten streak suggests. Believe me. On many occasions, the Catalan club has been bailed out by a moment of magic from their talisman, Lionel Messi. The recent 2-2 draw with Sevilla comes to mind. In Spain, Barca will get away with essentially relying on one man, but not in the world's biggest club competition. I discussed this issue with Spanish football expert, journalist and LaLiga commentator Graham Hunter back in October. He said, "Messi is becoming someone who is a teacher. There's a debate whether in certain circumstances players look for Messi too much because they know that if they give him the ball he'll do something." I'm sure he'd agree that over the season this has become clearer, perhaps less of a debate.
Now, as one would expect, Messi is a player Barca can rely on, but not in every single game of the season. There's an obvious lack of creativity coming from their other stars on the pitch and this was evident against the Giallorossi. At 33, Andres Iniesta, as sad as it may be, is far from the player he once was! Ivan Rakitic is also not going to get you 10 goals and 10 assists a season, while Luis Suarez seems to have lost that ability to make something out of nothing. He looks, dare I say, heavy. But I find it difficult to fault the striker as he, like Messi, does not get rested in LaLiga. Perhaps this is why he's only scored four goals from his last 19 games in Europe! Discussing Sergio Busquets is pointless as attacks start with him, but rarely involve him. Sergi Roberto was the other player in midfield. As tireless a runner as he is, he's not really known for splitting defences, is he? Perhaps Valverde should have trusted Ousmane Dembele from the start, just like he did in the round of 16 second leg tie against Chelsea, when he scored and made Barca look like a Champions League side again. Controlling the midfield with three men, and going forward with three.
The team's fortunes might have also been different had big-money signing Philippe Coutinho been available in Europe. His flair and vision is exactly what Barca lacked against Roma, and not only in the second leg as you might recall. The first leg was dull and the 4-1 scoreline undoubtedly flattered the Spanish side, after Roma conceded two unfortunate own goals. Lastly, Barca's defending cost them heavily, and this is where player-management comes into play once more. Gerard Pique has been carrying an injury since January, but has featured regularly in defence since then, even against teams in Spain we'd consider to be weaker opposition. Why risk him against sides like Leganes and Malaga? Again, players are not getting rested even with Barca's big lead in LaLiga. Where is Yerry Mina? Why not play the experienced Thomas Vermaelen?
Another major talking point has been the future of Samuel Umtiti. Rumours that he could leave seem to have affected his performances on the field. The Frenchman was the most in-form defender in Spain in the first half of the season, but ever since reports claimed Manchester United are in for his signature due to Barca stalling contract talks, he's made several uncharacteristic errors in LaLiga and in Europe. He's been dead average at the most crucial part of the season. It was he who allowed Edin Dzeko space for Roma's first goal in the second leg. Maybe letting Javier Mascherano go in January wasn't the smartest idea after all.
Alas, we could spend forever analysing every detail that resulted in Barca's capitulation, and even dismiss their exit as a one-off, but it's not that. Barca have been knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage in the last three seasons. There's an unhealthy trend. It's Messi regularly burning out towards the end of the season, unable to affect games of high priority. It's the reluctance to trust new signings. It's the manager's unwillingness to allow his star players a rest before big European nights.
In my opinion, Barca need to take notes from Real Madrid, and especially on how Zinedine Zidane manages Cristiano Ronaldo. Los Blancos keep winning in Europe because their main man, their goal machine, keeps coming alive when they need him most. He's scored 15 goals in his last 10 games in the UCL. It's not by chance Real are looking to win their third – yes, third – Champions League title in a row! Barca need to make massive changes to their approach if they want to be triumphant in Europe again, even if it means placing less importance on LaLiga.