“A failure without excuses,” shouted the cover of Catalan daily Sport on Wednesday morning, with the words “debacle”, “lamentable” and “elimination” also featuring in bold print.
The “elimination” in question was, of course, Barcelona exiting the Champions League the previous night, with a shock 3-0 defeat at Roma seeing them crash out on away goals.
It was quite a contrast to Tuesday’s Sport front page — which read “time for the semis already” amid a debate inside over the merits of facing Spanish rivals Real Madrid in the last four or in the final in Kiev.
Last week’s 4-1 first leg victory at the Camp Nou had only confirmed the general reaction to the quarter-final draw. Sport’s front page had then read ‘Sweet — fortune smiles on Barca in the draw with treble dream on’.
But nobody is smiling now. Mundo Deportivo said the Barca team flight back home on Tuesday night had been marked by “unhappiness, disappointment, silence and long faces among the Barca players and staff.”
Especially affected, apparently, were Andres Iniesta, after probably his last ever Champions League game, and Lionel Messi, who had seen his 2018 Ballon D’Or chances take a blow.
A search for those responsible began immediately — with statisticians pointing out Barca’s last nine Champions League exits (against Liverpool, Manchester United, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Roma, and Atletico Madrid twice) came without Messi scoring in either leg.
Further analysis suggested this did not mean the Argentine never does it on the big occasion — moreso that if he does not step up to lead the team then nobody else does.
Barca’s 31-year-old talisman has been below 100% fitness in recent weeks, missing two friendly internationals last month, but playing for his club despite the La Liga title being wrapped up for weeks.
The contrast with Real Madrid, where Cristiano Ronaldo is benefitting from accepting the need to rest from time to time, is clear.
The Camp Nou’s other senior figures have also been struggling recently. Centre-back Gerard Pique has been playing with a knee problem for two months, midfielder Sergio Busquets had a pain-killing injection in his foot on Tuesday morning, while captain Iniesta was substituted just seconds before Kostas Manolas headed to the net at a corner to complete Roma’s comeback. An ageing team are running out of gas just as the season’s most important moments arrive.
Meanwhile, the previously rich supply line of younger talent from the club’s La Masia academy has dried up — 2017/18 is the first season in a decade with no Barca B player blooded in the first team during their Champions League campaign.
Coach Ernesto Valverde also deserves plenty of stick. After chaos last summer brought on by Neymar’s shock departure, his plan for his debut season has been to stay solid defensively, keep things tight in midfield, and rely on Messi to do something special up top. That worked pretty well through the first six months of the season, as Barca took a commanding lead in La Liga and conceded just two goals in their six Champions League group games.
But recently they have been rocking, with warning signs clear in the last 16 against Chelsea, and recently against Sevilla in La Liga. The former Athletic Bilbao coach’s tactical conservatism backfired badly on Tuesday — especially the decision to leave €115m summer signing Ousmane Dembele on the bench until the 85th minute.
Amazing as it seems, Barca are just not attacking well enough under Valverde.
Startlingly, own-goals were their second highest scorer in Europe this season [four]. And it hurt when two of those responsible — Roma’s Daniele De Rossi and Manolas — netted at the right end in Tuesday’s return game.
Valverde and Messi are still well set for the domestic double — 11 points clear in La Liga and facing Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final on April 21. But now whatever happens, whether fair or not, Tuesday’s debacle in Rome will be regarded as the defining moment of their 2017/18 season.
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