FC Barcelona head into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarterfinals with a very significant advantage, and they’re heavily favored to advance over AS Roma. Barça won the first leg 4-1, and while there are a few things Roma fans can cling onto, the fact is, many suspect the tie is all but over.
Roma do have an away goal, and they’ll be playing at home. Away games in Europe have been Barcelona’s kryptonite often, although it’s not really been the case this season. Still, Barça are much better at home.
There’s also the fact that the Italians played a better match than the scoreline would indicate. In truth, many felt the result was quite harsh on them.
Still, the question for Ernesto Valverde is how he can keep his team, which has shown signs of sluggishness, in peak form for the final stages of all three competitions. He gave Andrés Iniesta, Samuel Umtiti, Jordi Alba, and Paulinho rest in Barcelona’s 3-1 win over Leganés. Sergio Busquets, who is nursing a toe injury, has been given time off too: he was subbed early in the first leg and didn’t play the last league match, either. Lionel Messi, who missed the two friendlies with Argentina due to an overburdened muscle, was rested for most of the match against Sevilla but has played every minute since. Gerard Piqué could be up for taking a break soon, as well as Sergi Roberto, Luis Suárez, and Ivan Rakitić.
Will Valverde rotate this match? I suspect he will bring out his “A” team, and as the game winds down, look to substitute some players - such as Suárez, Iniesta, or Rakitić. Roberto could drop to the bench with Nélson Semedo starting ahead of him at right back and Ousmane Dembélé at right wing. The rest of the team should be as before, barring unforeseen circumstances. One possibility could be the absence of Busquets, who might not still be 100%. Valverde could decide that giving him the day off is the best route forward as Barça likely will do all right with Rakitić in his role, and one of Paulinho or André Gomes (or even utility man Roberto) taking up the other central midfield spot.
Eusebio Di Francesco will probably start the match with the system he eventually settled upon when he started to chase the game in the first leg. Instead of a defensive 4-3-3 which really was often a 4-5-1, with the two wingers dropping into midfield, he’ll play a 4-2-3-1 with three attackers behind Edin Džeko. Radja Nainggolan, back from injury, could play that #10 role, with Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman instructed to back him up. On the wings, we probably will see Diego Perotti on one side, and on the other, probably either Cengiz Ünder back from injury or possibly, Stephan El Sharaawy. Alessandro Florenzi started as a winger in the first leg despite usually being a right back, but I suspect he’ll be back to the right back role, with Bruno Peres on the bench.
Playing wingers in this more attacking formation could leave them exposed, particularly with the threat of Alba and, to a lesser extent, Semedo or Roberto breaking through from fullback positions to create. Roma could try to press further up the pitch but, again, that leaves their rearguard somewhat exposed. Barcelona will miss Busquets if he isn’t fit enough to beat the press, though Rakitić can fill in. Roma could also tire if they are instructed to expend energy getting up and down the pitch, which could leave them unable to cope with Barça as the game wears on.
Unless Roma get a couple - or at least one - goal early, the intrigue and drama this match has will probably be minimal, and it’ll purely be a question of who Valverde can give rest to. The calendar will be full for the coming weeks. Have a look:
17/04 Celta Vigo
21/04 Sevilla (Copa del Rey Final)
24–25/04 UCL Semifinal 1
29/04 Deportivo La Coruña
01-02/05 UCL Semifinal 2
05/05 Real Madrid
That’s pretty packed, and Valverde may have to send out rotated sides against Valencia, Celta, or even Madrid in the league just to keep the squad fresh for the knockout matches. On the one hand, the league is almost won, so he can afford to do that. On the other hand, it’s not like they can forfeit games the rest of the way, they still need to come up with a few wins in there. But, it’s just 10 points that are needed. The cushion they’ve built up over the season will come in very handy.