FC Barcelona won decisively, but it was a bit of a weird one. The final score read Barcelona 4-1 AS Roma, and it sets the Catalans pretty well for a second leg in Rome. The goalscorers were unusual: two own goals, Gerard Piqué, and well, Luis Suárez with his first UEFA Champions League goal in over a year. Both Piqué and Suárez scored off rebounds, too.
Ernesto Valverde’s lone surprise in his starting XI was playing Nélson Semedo at right-back, moving Sergi Roberto to right wing and Ousmane Dembélé to the bench. This was surprising, but perhaps not too surprising after Barcelona’s 2-2 draw with Sevillla. TV cameras showed senior players like Jordi Alba and Suárez trying to coach Dembélé on the pitch, and goalkeeping coach José Ramón de la Fuente frequently upset as he instructed him to provide defensive support.
That’s clearly what Valverde had in mind with playing Roberto as a winger, and on that score, Roberto delivered. He does not have the pace of the Frenchman, of course, but he put in more tackles than anyone else on the pitch.
The right-back situation also changed, because Semedo offers more speed than Roberto. Particularly, he frequently went by others and was able to offer some creativity on the right. In defense, he was able to get back just in time when players broke through. Edin Džeko fumed that Semedo fouled him in the box one time the Portuguese man was flying back to defend, although from the replays it looked like a good no-call.
The one thing that Semedo could improve is his passing, because he sometimes got himself into a great position with a good dribble, only to pick the wrong pass. This is the sort of thing that I expect he will correct as he gets even more acclimated into the system.
On the other side, Eusebio Di Francesco pulled basically the same surprise, taking his regular right-back (Alessandro Florenzi) and putting him as a right wing, and putting on another fullback (Bruno Peres) in.
The idea was to stifle the Alba-Iniesta combination, though I’m not sure it worked - Alba was still one of Barcelona’s main creative threats. Maybe it would have been worse had Stephan El Shaarawy started.
AS Roma, while nominally in a 4-3-3 shape, took on more of a 4-1-4-1 shape, with both their wingers tucking in. Radja Nainggolan was not fit enough to play and Lorenzo Pellegrini took his place. Otherwise, the team was as expected, and so, too, was the strategy.
Roma did reasonably well in stifling Barça’s combination play by staying narrow, which makes you wonder what impact Dembélé would have had out wide, especially up against one of the slower fullbacks in Aleksandar Kolarov.
Daniele De Rossi was there to provide extra cover in the middle between the two banks of four for the Italians, and he did an admirable job of keeping Messi at bay - until he made a bad mistake and scored an own goal while attempting to take a pass off Messi.
Roma probably were intent on trying to keep it 0-0, or at worst, 0-1. But from a short corner, Ivan Rakitić drilled in a great, inviting pass, that Kostas Manolas bundled over accidentally in ping-pong fashion into the back of the net.
Roma had done good work up until then, but their gameplan was out the window. Now they needed an away goal. And instead, Barcelona caught them on the break.
Gerard Piqué made a block in his box, then motored forward as Roma had committed men forward. Busquets picked up the loose ball and gave it to Roberto. Roberto carried it before dishing it off to Messi and going into the box as a centerforward. Suárez intelligently had made space for himself on the left, and Messi found him expertly. The Uruguayan’s shot was parried, but Piqué was there after his lung-bursting run to tap it in.
3-0 down, Roma were truly desperate. Di Francesco decided to really go for it, he gradually took off Pellegrini, Florenzi, and De Rossi and in came Maxime Gonalons, El Shaarawy, and Grégoire Defrel. The net effect is that instead of playing a holding midfielder behind two central midfielders, Roma had a #10 (Defrel) in front of the two central midfielders (Gonalons and Kevin Strootman.) And, Di Francesco took off the more defensive Florenzi and hoped El Shaarawy would create more.
Perhaps he should have gone like that from the start, because they did look more threatening. And their goal did come, in the 80th, via Džeko. But Barcelona responded right back, with Suárez smashing in a poor touch by Gonalons. The away goal does spoil it slightly, but Barcelona go into the second leg 4-1 up, and they’d have to meltdown pretty badly to lose the tie now.
Valverde didn’t change much with his subs. First, he brought on Paulinho in place of Busquets, who lacked fitness. Rakitić took Busquets’s spot and Paulinho took the Croatian’s. After that, the last two subs seemed to be about getting as close to like-for-like replacements after his starters tired, with André Gomes and Denis Suárez coming in for Roberto and Iniesta. The lack of Dembélé even off the bench - assuming it’s not a physical problem - is telling, and could be worrying for him.
The 4-1 flattered Barcelona, although it’s unusual we keep saying that after so many matches this season. Are we missing something, or are Barça just somewhat lucky? I think the result certainly is harsh on Roma, but let’s not get too far off in that direction, either. Barça had more possession and took more shots. A lot of those own goals only happen because of really good combination plays that make defenders have to make rash challenges for the ball, lest they allow a tap-in. Barcelona deserved to win, and it was, outside of expectations, a good showing and a terrific result.
There’s a suspicion this team is playing within itself, saving itself at every turn, and not just to finish this season on a high note. In 2014, Messi looked below peak fitness at the World Cup. This summer might be his last World Cup in his prime. It’s certainly Iniesta’s last, and several other veterans are in that boat - Piqué and Suárez for example.
The team looked a bit sluggish, and it’s especially understandable with the game happening just a few days after the international break. It almost seemed like they wanted to coast at 3-0 up, and when Roma scored, they went “right then, we probably should score, too” and scored right after.
Messi was apparently nursing an overburdened muscle, Busquets was clearly not at full fitness, and who knows what other niggling injuries we don’t know about. Barcelona’s approach was reminiscent of the way they handle a midtable La Liga team, not a Champions League quarterfinal. But Roma really had chances, and Barcelona were in panic mode often. Can Barça really turn it on when it counts, or is this sluggishness a feature of the team? Against a better or luckier opponent, this Barça could really pay.
On the other hand, maybe it all is going exactly to plan. We all know Valverde is a smart man and a good coach, he’s not fluking an entire season. But is he fluking a slightly better season than he would otherwise have? Or is this all part of the master plan? We are fast approaching a moment of truth.