The one word uppermost in the minds of all Barcelona players, fans and pundits throughout this season was ‘Roma’.
Barca’s shock 0-3 defeat at Roma in last year’s Champions League quarter-final second leg marked the collective Camp Nou psyche — even taking the gloss of winning the 2017/18 La Liga and Copa del Rey double, especially when rivals Real Madrid went on to lift the UCL trophy.
As 2018/19 unfolded, everyone from club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to coach Ernesto Valverde said repeatedly that important lessons had been learned in the Italian capital. Blaugrana talisman Lionel Messi also kept mentioning ‘Roma’ as he set regaining the Champions League as the focus for his first year as club captain.
Everything seemed to be going to plan, especially when Messi scored twice as Liverpool were beaten 3-0 in last week’s semi-final first leg at the Camp Nou.
And even after Divock Origi scored an early goal in Wednesday’s second leg, Barca created multiple chances for a goal which would have swung momentum back their way. But they missed them all, and they looked a beaten team as soon as Georginio Wijnaldum’s double evened things up on aggregate, with a mental blockage evident as Trent Alexander Arnold’s quick-thinking laid on Origi’s second.
The last few minutes were painful viewing [although joyous for Liverpool fans] as Messi was surrounded by multiple Liverpool players, and his teammates could not even get the ball into the opposition box.
Unsurprisingly, the fateful word arose again on the final whistle.
After Roma... that this could happen again… there's nothing I can say.
Barca midfielder Sergio Busquets said in his post-game pitchside interview, before fading off into silence.
'Roma' was also prominent in Wednesday’s press coverage of the game in the Catalan sports press, along with the words 'debacle', 'soulless', 'humiliation' and 'the biggest embarrassment in history'.
Valverde’s tactical decisions - starting Philippe Coutinho, leaving young playmaker Arthur Melo on the bench until too late - were questioned. But the issues at the Camp Nou clearly go much deeper than who chooses the starting XI.
While Anfield's atmosphere may be unique on big European nights, Barca have also lost 0-4 at Paris Saint Germain, 0-3 at Juventus and 0-3 at Bayern Munich in recent years, clear evidence of a mental issue deep within the team, and the club, which dates back well before last year's shock defeat.
The most important players, including Messi, have regularly been paralysed when things start going against them in the biggest European games.
A team which was famous for using calm possession of the ball to control their opponents now loses its shape and head when put under severe pressure. Big personalities like Carles Puyol, Dani Alves, AndresIniesta, Xavi Hernandez have never been properly replaced.
Hundreds of millions of euro has been spent on talented but unreliable players like Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.
The biggest problem is a lack of clarity and purpose from the top down. Bartomeu arrived as president almost by accident, while sporting directors and transfer advisers have come and gone seemingly at randomas Messi has been left increasingly alone as the club's dominant personality.
“There'll be time to reflect on what went wrong,” Bartomeu said.
The same happened at Roma last year. It's tough to explain. We'll do it internally.
Whether ultimately responsible or not, Valverde admitted at Anfield that he did not know if he would now lose his job. Bartomeu leaked the idea of sacking the coach on the eve of last year's Copa final, and even beating Valencia on May 25 to complete another domestic double is unlikely to save him.
There is no obvious replacement, however, especially with tiki-taka's foremost defender Xavi staying in Qatar to gain coaching experience ahead of World Cup 2022. So it would be no surprise if Barca now looks to Ajax’s re-emergence as the most exciting source of ideas in European football.
The Dutch club’s midfield starlet Frenkie de Jong has already been signed for next season, and teammates Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van der Beek also look enticing. Ajax manager Erik ten Hag could follow the path of past Ajax figures Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and FrankRijkaard.
Whoever takes over, the next Barca coach's biggest task will be mental, not tactical. Wednesday's surrender means 'Anfield' has joined 'Roma' as words to make everyone around the Camp Nou shudder.