UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona and their Italian conundrum
Let us dwell a little into Greek Mythology. Ever heard of Achilles? Well here is a little something about him. Achilles was a Greek hero, son of the immortal Nereid Thetis. He was said to be the greatest warrior of the Agamemnon army in the Trojan War. When Achilles was a baby, there was a prophecy that he would die young. Fearing the death, his mother dipped him in the River Styx.
Coming to Styx, it is a river of huge importance in Greek Mythology. Swearing upon the river is the ultimate promise for Greek Gods. It is also said to possess the ability to impart invulnerability. However, a bath in Styx is extremely painful. In addition to it, there remains one weak spot in the body, which remains vulnerable.
Achilles’ weak spot was his heel. He died of an arrow that pierced through his heels. That is the reason for the famous idiom, Achilles’ heel. Despite being powerful beyond limits, there always remains a weak spot.
In the world of sports, there are many examples of the existence of Achilles’ heel. Virat Kohli is probably unstoppable on his day. He drives every ball sweetly, off the meat of the bat. But even for a batsman of his standards, there is a weakness. Kohli is very vulnerable to balls just outside off-stump and has a tendency to edge it, more often than not.
LeBron James, the greatest basketball player of all time, according to many. He can pass, he can handle the ball, he can defend and he can shoot. But, send him to the free-throw line and behold, he chokes from the line. For Lionel Messi, it is his penalty taking ability or the international play, for Cristiano Ronaldo, it is his passing decisions and, currently, dribbling.
What is it for FC Barcelona? A team that has been on the receiving end of a lot of oppression during their early years. A team that was lost till the great Johan Cruyff arrived. A team that has played the brand of football that will never be recreated in history. What could be the weak spot?
Last season, Barcelona went into the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals with a three-goal lead. They were expected to sail through to the semis against a mediocre Roma. What followed was a disaster for Barcelona. In the 84th minute, Manolas’ header went past Marc Andre Ter Stegen, who had managed to hang on for that long. Roma got their third goal courtesy that header and went through on away goals.
Peter Drury was shocked by the scenes as were the fans at the stadium and those watching at home.
“Roma has risen from their ruins. Manolas, the Greek God in Rome. This was not meant to happen. This couldn’t happen, this is happening.” – Peter Drury
It wasn’t a bad day at the office. Barcelona was beaten only by three teams last season. Real Madrid, Levante and Roma. Levante just managed to hold Barcelona off at 5-4. Real Madrid won in the Spanish Super Cup, over two legs. But both teams had momentum with them, unlike Roma. Barcelona was flawless all season, minus the Roma game. Roma outclassed Barcelona, and the team returned to Spain, with a sense of defeat, not to Roma but to Real Madrid. Barca knew that they handed the trophy to Madrid.
It wasn’t the first time Barcelona fell in Italy. Earlier that season, Barcelona didn’t have problems in defeating Juventus at home. But when they visited Turin, they didn’t manage to break the defensive barriers.
In 2017, Barcelona visited Turin for a date with Juventus, in the quarterfinals. They were destroyed by a young Paulo Dybala. Juventus’s much-acclaimed defence by bypassed many times by Messi but Barcelona didn’t find their inside runs or finishing. When Roma hosted Barcelona in 2015 for a group stage game, Ter Stegen made a huge mistake that was punished by Florenzi.
Either something odd happens that costs Barcelona the game or they are outplayed. The mistake by Ter Stegen cost them the three points in 2015 against Roma. There was a glaring miss by Iniesta, during the quarter-final against Juventus in 2017. A one on one opportunity that he would finish 99 times out of hundred, even against a keeper like Buffon.
Last season, Roma didn’t make one corner attempt at the near post. Luis Suarez always gobbled them up. But eventually they tried in the 84th minute and Suarez missed it, even though he is so good at defending the near post.
It is inexplicable as to what happens in Italy. It is not like Barcelona couldn’t beat Italian opponents. They demolished Roma at home last season. They did the same to Juventus. They destroyed AC Milan 4-0 at home, even though they lost 2-0 at Milan. Yes, Barcelona lost to AC Milan in the 1st leg by 2-0, back in UEFA Champions League, Round of 16 in 2013.
Barcelona visited Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan in the semi-finals and they were defeated, despite being the favourites. Inter’s rock solid defence was impregnable, even by a young Lionel Messi and a prime Xavi Hernandez. But Barcelona did manage to win at Camp Nou, although they failed to advance to the finals.
Barcelona has been facing a problem with winning in Italy. It is not Italian clubs, it is the country that is the problem. It started in 2010 with the defeat to Inter, but since then they have won only once in Italy, against AC Milan and that too by just a goal. Their problems in Italy were present even before 2010.
They won only twice at Italy from 1999/00 to 2009/10, once against Udinese and against AC Milan. In the long decade, Barcelona failed to defeat Roma and even Fiorentina at Italy.
It is a weird type of curse that Barcelona has in Italy. Very similar to the curse they faced at Anoeta against Real Sociedad. Barcelona has managed to break their Anoeta jinx and it is about time that they did something about Italy as well. They will travel to Milan to take on Inter on Tuesday. Barcelona did manage to defeat Inter Milan at home, but Italy is totally different.
It has happened in the past that Barcelona was successful at home but was outplayed in Italy. They are currently in red-hot form and hopefully, Lionel Messi will return to the team. It remains to be seen whether Barcelona will be forced into the corner by Inter, so much that Valverde has no choice but to introduce Leo.
A very peculiar curse indeed. The greatest midfield duo and a young Lionel Messi failing to break Inter's defensive barriers. An in-control team goes to Milan and comes back with a 2-0 loss to AC Milan. A team that has all the momentum after their 6-1 win is destroyed by the Old Lady of Turin. A team unbeaten in the Champions League and LaLiga squanders a three-goal lead at Rome. Above all, the team is Barcelona and the midfield duo are Xavi and Iniesta.
Let us hope Barcelona ends this curse once and for all.
Italy, the Achilles' heel for Barcelona.