Barcelona registered a comprehensive 6–1 win over AS Roma to guarantee qualification into the knockout phase of the Champions League as the group E winners
Barcelona registered a comprehensive 6–1 win over AS Roma to guarantee qualification into the knockout phase of the Champions League as the group E winners. Camp Nou witnessed the return of Lionel Messi after his long injury layoff, and the Argentine maestro did not disappoint, scoring twice and assisting one.
Luis Enrique’s Barca did not settle into a comfort zone following their 4–0 Clasico win over Real Madrid this past weekend, as he named a fairly strong side with only captain Andres Iniesta rested after his match-winning display at the Bernabeu. Andres Iniesta was replaced in the starting eleven by Messi, while two other changes included Thomas Vermaelen, who replaced the injured Javier Mascherano in defence, and cup goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Roma, meanwhile, made only one change from their weekend draw in the league at Bologna as Juan Manuel Iturbe was left on the bench and was replaced by La Masia product Iago Falque. Manager Rudi Garcia travelled without his first-choice wingers Gervinho and Mohamed Salah as well as club captain Francesco Totti owing to their injuries.
Barca started in their 4–3–3 shape, and the fact Messi was back into the scheme of things made their set-up look more balanced than in recent weeks. Messi started on the right-hand side, with Neymar on the opposite flank, while Suarez stayed up front as the no 9. The three attackers interchanged fluently; Neymar and Messi drifted into central areas from their wide positions and Suarez dropped short on occasions to draw the centre-backs off their positions and also to offer passing options.
Sergio Busquets was the deepest midfielder, with Sergi Roberto and Ivan Rakitic shuttling along the half spaces beside him. The two full-backs, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves had 177 touches in total, although Alves rarely bypassed Messi and ran towards the touchline whereas Alba was more dynamic in running beyond as well as underlapping Neymar. Vermaelen partnered Gerard Pique at the heart of the Barca defence.
Although Roma lined up in a 4–3–3 on paper, the Giallorossi had plans to overload the flanks in a bid to prevent the Barca full-backs from supporting Messi and Neymar. Kostas Manolas and Antonio Rudiger have been the Italian capital club’s first choice centre-back pairing this season, and the duo kept their place in the starting eleven. Maicon and Lucas Digne flanked the Greco-German duo, while Wojciech Szczesny was the last line of defence.
Ex-Barca midfielder Seydou Keita captained Roma in both Totti and Daniele De Rossi’s absence, and he sat deep alongside Radja Nainggolan at the base of the Roma midfield. Miralem Pjanic took up a more advanced position in midfield, and was the press initiator from the front as the two wide forwards, Falque and Alessandro Florenzi, tucked into the flanks to cover the Barca full-backs. Edin Dzeko was the lone striker.
Following are three tactical thoughts on the game:
1. Passive Roma
Initially, Roma were very compact vertically. The Giallorossi squeezed play as their defensive line stayed as high as possible in the early exchanges. Roma’s high line and compact vertical spacing meant they were dependent on Pjanic’s pressing from the front to recover possession in advanced areas of the pitch which could’ve resulted in good support from the rest of the players in a tight space in the centre of the pitch.
But Roma’s initial attempt to press Barca’s midfield and stop their centre-backs from playing second passes into a free man in midfield quickly turned into their own disadvantage. Both Pique and Vermaelen found space and time on the ball as a result, and Pique, in particular, regularly carried the ball into midfield and sought long diagonal balls into deeper areas to bypass Roma’s compactness.
With Barca’s real-time problem solving rendering Roma’s initial approach irrelevant, the Italians gradually sat back and dropped deeper and deeper. The two wide men were almost playing as auxiliary wing-backs now, and this invited Barca into more promising areas inside the Roma half. Roma’s man-oriented zonal defensive scheme led to Barca’s first goal, as Digne’s covering of Rakitic allowed Alves to run behind Falque and the entire Roma back line.
Barca’s opening goal once again put Roma’s switches to relative insignificance as once they went ahead, the Blaugrana easily picked the Giallorossi defensive ranks and scored at will. The 3–0 scoreline at the break even allowed Enrique to rest Busquets and give Sergi Samper a run out. With Dzeko cutting a forlorn figure up front and ten men behind the ball, Roma barely posed a threat, which was the polar opposite of what happened at the other end.
2. Return Of The MSN Trident
Barca’s celebrated trident of Messi, Suarez and Neymar started a game for the first time since September 26th and were quickly back to their usual business. All six of Barca’s goals had a telling contribution from the trident. For the first goal from Suarez, Neymar’s defence-splitting pass through the centre found Alves, who made a run behind his cover Falque and laid the ball off for Suarez to score.
The second goal was the perfect example of the metronomic combination play between Messi, Neymar and Suarez at the end of a sustained period of Barca possession. Neymar, who drifted into central areas from his outside right starting position throughout the game, received the ball from Vermaelen in the left half space before starting a one-touch passing move of five passes between himself, Messi and Suarez which was bookended by a fine finish from La Pulga, his first goal in two months.
The third goal on the stroke of half time was a Suarez volley for the highlights reel, and the trident continued their assault on the Roma goal in the second half as Gerard Pique’s goal — his tenth in European competitions — was crafted by another one-touch combination play started from a short corner routine from Neymar and Messi on the right, before the Brazilian found Suarez who thread a perfect through ball to send Messi into a 1v1 with Szczesny.
Messi’s second goal and Barca’s fifth once again heavily involved all three as Messi’s long diagonal was expertly taken down by Neymar before he passed it into a more central position to Suarez, whose shot cum pass found Messi who then scored with his second attempt. Barca’s sixth was a penalty earned by Neymar, and after the Brazilian missed his spot kick, it was turned it by compatriot Adriano, who came on in the second half for Roberto.
An exhibition of sorts by Messi, Neymar and Suarez on the occasion of their first full 90 minutes together for the first time in months. Barca look an entirely different kind when all three are on the pitch together, and Roma were unlucky to be on the end of a result perhaps nobody envisaged when the group stage draw was made back in August.
3. Roma’s Struggles In Attacking Balance
Any team would find it hard to maintain attacking balance when they face up against the MSN trident, and Roma barely had a sniff at the Barca goal throughout the game. In the first half, set pieces were the only opportunities for any Roma attack, and Dzeko contrived to miss a presentable header in the 13th minute, from a corner which he himself earned.
In the second half, with Busquets absent, Roma had greater freedom moving forward compared to the first half, but barely posed a threat to Ter Stegen. Nainggolan was subbed off at the break for Iturbe, which allowed Pjanic to play behind the Argentine. That change failed to make any significant impact as Barca maintained their possession as well as territorial advantage. Roma have had low possession numbers this season, surprisingly.
Roma created better open play chances in the second half than they managed in the first half, but the game was already over by then, although Dzeko’s last minute goal prevented Ter Stegen from collecting another European clean sheet.
It was far from a game of fine margins as the scoreline suggests, and Barca were clearly superior in every aspect of play. There was no Clasico hangover for the Blaugrana, as they enjoyed the perfect after-party following Saturday’s win.