When trying to pick apart the reasons for Barcelona’s dismal second leg collapse in the Champions League, could you simply say Roma wanted it more? Not to do their Coach Eusebio di Francesco a disservice; he set his team up brilliantly, making the switch from 4-3-3 to 3-5-2 and giving Edin Dzeko some assistance up front.
They made the most of Barcelona’s narrow formation, flooding the midfield and ensuring their wing-backs were not overloaded. The extra centre-back gave them height which proved crucial from set pieces. Whatever Di Francesco said in the dressing room clearly worked as Roma believed. They ran tirelessly for 90 minutes, harassing the Barca players like rabid wolves at every opportunity and they could not handle it.
Only when the visitors fully grasped there was some danger of them going out did they finally awake from their stupor and test the Roma defence. Coach Ernesto Valverde didn’t make change for 80 minutes, with Ousmane Dembele and Paco Alcacer only coming on with five minutes remaining.
These situations are difficult when you roll into a second leg – do Barcelona, who going into the tie had the best defence in the competition, sit back and frustrate the opposition? Or do they – with arguably the best attacking player to ever play the game – try to score a couple past the hosts early to put the tie to bed?
In the end they did neither. Through balls over the top and set pieces, their backline was constantly exposed and they appeared a very penetrable defence. The nights other tie saw Liverpool go in at a similar situation, with a 3-0 lead from the first leg against Manchester City. They defended diligently for a half and hit City the moment they eased off.
There were signs in the first leg that Roma could get at Valverde’s side but two own goals had seemingly killed their chances with 4-1 a tough result to reverse, but it is all perception. Looking at score lines Barcelona have walked through most teams in Europe in their way with relative ease. But the performances have told a different tale.
Individual brilliance from Messi dragged them through against an unlucky Chelsea and games against Sporting CP and Olympiakos in the group stages were a tough watch for fans of the Blaugrana. Many thought Barcelona were only in second gear given how frightening we know this side to be on their day.
Their unbeaten league run painted an image of an imperious and domineering side, wonderfully reinvented under Valverde. But looking at the bigger picture, they have not played well in Europe for a while, as they contemplate three consecutive quarter-final exits. Nobody but Lionel Messi has scored away in the Champions League since 2016, and the fact that their second top scorer this season is own goals with six goals tells its own tale.
Chillingly, every time Barclona have been knocked out, Messi has failed to score in either leg. That is not a slight on the Argentine but often those around him. More than ever things in this Barca side run through him and if he has an off night, few others step up in his stead. Ernesto Valverde is a tactically astute Coach but his overreliance on Messi and failure to adapt when under siege lost his team the match, and consequently the tie.