Roma president James Pallotta flew in from the United States to attend his club’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Barcelona at the Stadio Olimpico, insisting he made the trip because he believed the Giallorossi could overcome a 4-1 aggregate deficit.
Images of the American businessman jumping into a fountain on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo late on Tuesday night showed his faith to have been well placed.
The Italian side were imperious as they swatted aside Ernesto Valverde’s La Liga leaders 3-0 on the night, earning progress to the semi-finals of Europe’s premier club competition via away goals.
The key to Roma’s ability to manifest their unprecedented comeback lay in their start to the game, flying out of the blocks and setting a pace Barcelona couldn’t handle.
After just six minutes, Eusebio De Francesco’s men opened the scoring, with Daniele De Rossi’s lofted ball from midfield latched on to by the bustling Edin Džeko, who drove between Jordi Alba and Samuel Umtiti to finish.
Still, they needed two more unanswered goals to book their progress into the last four, a significant task given the level of talent, not least five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, the opposition possessed.
In fairness, though, the one-sided first-leg scoreline had flattered Barça, portraying a dominant 90 minutes for the Catalan giants when, in truth, Roma more than held their own in the Camp Nou.
They may have only landed three shots on target to Barça’s nine, but Roma were denied two strong penalty appeals and enjoyed a greater quality of chances than their hosts, with an expected goals (xG) of 2.1 to 1.9.
So, powered by a sense of injustice from the first leg, and knowing how to expose their opponents vulnerabilities, the Giallorossi carried a confidence into the return fixture, despite the odds stacked high against them.
As the half-time whistle blew, Barcelona looked stunned. To a man, they ambled off the field wearing distant looks, lacking ideas after being thoroughly put to the sword. When play resumed, it was more of the same. Although the away side edged possession overall, Roma had more bite, outshooting the Catalans 17 to nine.
Veteran captain Daniele De Rossi, 34 years young, physically and technically dominated a midfield that used to be the envy of Europe. His penalty just before the hour mark tuned Roma’s comeback chances from possible to probable. With eight minutes to play, centre-back Kostas Manolas headed Roma into a well-deserved away goals lead.
The Italian side’s remarkable turnaround is historic, and Di Francesco deserves immense credit for masterminding it. But Barcelona were complicit in their own downfall.
Fairly bested over both legs, hopes of a Treble for the La Liga leaders have ended and they can have no complaint. Valverde’s side occupy a false position at present: not as top dogs in the Spanish top flight – they have earned that much – but they have often ridden their luck, underwhelmed and lacked inspiration this season, yet they remain unbeaten in the league.
This current incarnation of Barça don’t dominate like Pep Guardiola’s memorable team did, nor do they possess the dynamism of Luis Enrique’s side – to that end, Neymar’s absence is still felt.
This is a functional Barcelona team. They don’t flow; possession rarely builds to a swirling maelstrom as it did under Guardiola, and the telepathy of the ‘MSN’ seems a distant memory. Now more than ever they rely on Messi to inspire. Valverde’s approach is simple: a structured 4-4-2 with the Argentine genius shouldering almost the entire attacking burden; if he’s off song, as he was in Rome, there’s not a whole lot left.
The warning signs were there in a recent come-from-behind draw away to Sevilla, too. With Messi rested to recover from a minor injury, Barça fell 2-0 behind, only shocking profligacy keeping the Andalusians in sight. Valverde introduced his trusty No.10 in the second half, who then proceeded to bail the Blaugrana out with a last-minute equaliser.
Valverde has also been reluctant to sufficiently rotate his key players, many of whom now look jaded as the end of a long season approaches. More shocking still, the former Athletic Bilbao coach waited until the 85th minute, with the game lost, to introduce Ousmane Dembélé, the obvious contender to add the kind of counter-attacking threat they had so clearly lacked throughout.
Dembélé became the second-most expensive player in history when he moved to the Camp Nou from Borussia Dortmund last summer – since usurped by the club’s purchase of cup-tied Philippe Coutinho – yet Valverde seems not to trust the supremely gifted 20-year-old in key encounters.
At the Olimpico, Sergi Roberto was seen as the ‘safe’ option for the right-midfield berth. The Spain international is a fine, dependable technician, but would not frighten his opposing full-back nearly as much as the direct, dribble-happy Frenchman.
Former Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, a Chelsea transfer target back in January, was a man mountain, De Rossi a Colossus in the home of the Colosseum, and Federico Fazio unrecognisable from the clumsy, limited defender who forgettably turned out for Tottenham Hotspur not so long ago.
Roma were perfect on Tuesday night, exposing all of Barcelona’s imperfections.