How Valverde marshals his forces may be key to Barcelona’s Champions League ambitions

A below par performance from Barcelona on Saturday evening saw them fortunate to earn a draw with visiting Valencia.

The 2-2 score line flattered the home side, and Marcelino and his forces will have returned to the Mestalla annoyed with how they let a two-goal lead slip. A point was less than their sharp performance deserved.

Once again for Ernesto Valverde and his side, they had Lionel Messi to thank for getting them out of a tricky situation.

The Argentine bagged his 20th and 21st goals of the season to salvage a hard-earned point that kept them clear of Atletico Madrid at the top of the La Liga standings.

On reflection, it was probably unsurprising that the Blaugrana looked a little leggy with many of those on show having played in the Copa del Rey quarter final second leg win over Sevilla on Wednesday night.

In Spain, with the cup in full flow, the games have been coming thick and fast since Christmas.

Having rested a number of stars for the first leg, Messi and Luis Suarez amongst them, and suffered a 2-0 defeat, Valverde felt he had to roll out the big guns at the Camp Nou with their defence of the cup on the line.

The ensuing 6-1 demolition propelled the Catalans into a record ninth successive Copa semi-final – but some might question the cost. Dropped points and laboured displays will give Atleti, and even Real Madrid, hope.

And those signs of tiredness may also worry those who feel that Valverde’s reliance on his main stars could threaten their dreams of reclaiming the Champions League from the Bernabeu trophy cabinet.

Being top dogs in Europe is the holy grail for all of the game’s super clubs, but for Barca it has taken on even greater importance in recent times.

According to’s Joseph Sexton:

The Champions League is now an obsession for Barca given how a Madrid team that’s played second fiddle to them domestically for some time has lorded this competition in recent years.

The Catalans have failed to advance past the last eight since they last lifted the trophy back in 2015 and have had to look on jealously as their biggest rivals have won it in each of the three intervening seasons.

The depth of the obsession is illustrated by the fact that for all that Valverde has achieved in his 20 months in charge – the domestic double and the loss of only three league La Liga games out of 60 foremost amongst them – one game seems to cast a shadow over it all, last season’s Champions League quarter final collapse in Rome.

Leading Roma 4-1 from the first leg, Barca turned in a leaden performance at the Stadio Olimpico that saw them dumped dramatically from the competition.

Valverde copped most of the blame for a tired display in which they were completely out thought and outrun by a moderate Roma side.

“It was a body blow,” says Sexton, “a massively disappointing result, with the pervading feeling that the lack of rotation of the likes of Messi and Suarez, as well as those in the midfield zone, played a central role.”

Naturally, there’s a fear that tired legs and minds could see them come up short once again, but Sexton feels that Barca have greater midfield options this season, with the young Brazilian Arthur impressing, Arturo Vidal adding power and know how, Kevin Prince Boateng coming in as an extra body and Philippe Coutinho showing signs of a return to form.

Indeed, Sexton thinks that with the Champions League at its most open for years, Barca fans have good reasons to feel optimistic:

Real Madrid are clearly weaker this season, and Manchester City appear less competitive domestically. Bayern are too, but their problems seem far more pronounced.

Moreover, one of Juventus or Atlético Madrid will go out as they face each other this coming round.

Throw in Neymar’s injury woes for PSG, and I think we are seeing a wide-open field, with Barcelona, in reasonably good, or even better, shape than in recent seasons, surely to be in the mix.

Much will depend, however, on how well Valverde can deploy his forces as the season progresses.

But if he can get it right, and keep his A-list stars sharp for the final push, then their primary target, their obsession, will be within their reach.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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