Gerard Pique could see the disaster coming. As the story goes, at some point during Roma’s 3-0 comeback win in the second leg of the quarterfinals that knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League, Pique walked to the sideline and implored manager Ernesto Valverde to press Roma further up the field to disrupt their rhythm. Valverde supposedly responded by reminding Pique that he, not the center back, was the manager, and they would continue to sit back and protect their own half. And after the devastating loss, Pique was also rumored to have criticized Lionel Messi for his lack of energy in the match. Regardless of whether these confrontations actually took place, they symbolized the cost of losing on this European stage, particularly in this manner. Little moments spiral into myths.
Although those over-exaggerations seemed appropriate for the night. The 3-0 comeback win may have been the most memorable night in Roma’s footballing history, even beating the atmosphere of Italy’s 2006 World Cup win. It was only the second time the club had ever reached the semifinals in Europe’s top competition, and the first time in over 30 years. Instead of holding onto a lead in typical Barcelona manner with possession, it was Valverde’s counterpart who became the night’s hero. Switching his Roma side to a three-defender backline instead of his trademark 4-3-3 formation, Daniele de Rossi said Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco “changed a lot of things and...got it spot on”. Dzeko added that he had “never seen Barcelona struggle so much.”
Meanwhile, Valverde did what he had done all season, and did what he was brought in to do when taking over as Barcelona manager: present a consistent, balanced 4-4-2 lineup centered around Messi. It was exactly the same look that beat Roma 4-1 less than a week earlier. But there were nuances. He admitted afterwards that he expected Barcelona to find space with Roma looking to attack, yet he left Ousmane Dembele, the fastest counter attacking winger in his squad, on the bench. And when he did finally make the switch to Dembele, it was in the 81st minute. Roma would tie the match a minute later. Valverde then introduced Paco Alcacer and Andre Gomes in the 85th minute in an attempt to create something out of individual brilliance rather than structural superiority. After the match, the manager blamed their inability to handle Roma’s physicality and strength, particularly on second balls. Regardless, Valverde took full responsibility as the “visible head of the team.”
The finger pointing and the culprits for the collapse began just as immediately as the match ended. Despite Valverde’s assertion of being the most visible person on the field, analysts blamed the Barcelona board led by Josep Bartomeu for putting the club in a position without any reinforcements for Busquets, and with Gomes, Alcacer and Dembele as the only options off the bench for a Champions League quarterfinals match. There is still no replacement for Xavi after three years. Dembele and Paulinho were all they had to show in replacing Neymar over the summer.
But a win against Roma would only mask the difference in quality in a potential matchup against Real Madrid or Liverpool in the semifinals. Of course, Valverde could have put Dembele on earlier in the match to threaten on the counter. And the cautiousness he displayed went against a Barcelona identity built on controlling a match through the ball instead of off-ball space. Afterwards, Bartomeu failed to endorse Valverde’s future, only apologizing to their fans and admitting that Roma were the better team on the night.
Barcelona head into their weekend match against Valencia one match away from La Liga history. Their 38-game unbeaten run is tied with Real Sociedad’s streak from 1979 for the longest in the league. And with a result at the Camp Nou, they keep their dreams of an Invincibles season alive.
But at what cost? The European stage over-exaggerates every outcome, especially with a club with the global attention of Barcelona. While Valverde was unprepared for Di Francesco’s change in shape in the second leg, his side are 11 points up on second place and have effectively won the league since their 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid last month.
Yet even in dominating the league, there is always room for controversy. Valverde’s conservative style reveals itself not only in tactics but in how little he rotated in his squad. He was accused of burning his players out in a league he had already won in order to chase unbeaten glory. Messi has rested only 207 minutes in La Liga compared to Ronaldo at 609 minutes. And it was Messi playing 90 minutes and scoring a hat trick against 14th place Leganes just four days prior to their loss against Roma. Instead of slowly relieving the pressure, they appear to become ever more reliant on Messi to bail out the side with every season.
Valverde asked last week which was preferred between winning in Europe or going through the league unbeaten. He answered his own question by having no answer since he had accomplished neither. The league is a steady marathon, while the Champions League comes in unpredictable sprints aided by dubious refereeing decisions. The either-or premise of Valverde’s question implies that at some point, a club must choose. Real Madrid are in fourth place in the league, but in the semifinals of Europe, which suits a club whose identity comes from showing their dominance across the continent. Roma, also in fourth place, sit 21 points behind first place. In addition to Barcelona, league leaders Manchester City and Juventus were also knocked out in the quarterfinal stage.
Andres Iniesta admitted after the loss that it could be his last Champions League match at Barcelona. He described the comeback as what happens when a side makes a lot of mistakes and doesn’t “adapt to the game.” And while Valverde will take the criticism from fans and his own players, he was never hired for a revolution. His strengths are in the dressing room and ability to get the most out of the squad handed to him. The unpredictable nature of Europe belies a steady hand. So, La Liga or the Champions League? Valverde’s nature may only be suited for one.