Messi and Ronaldo not to blame for UEFA Champions League exits
There was something oddly fitting in the manner of the exits suffered by both Juventus and Barcelona from the UEFA Champions League this midweek.
With it, the two era-defining players of the modern game – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – bid farewell to the competition, perhaps for the last time with their current clubs. It was interesting though: while the exact circumstances of the eliminations themselves were wildly different, they left the same broad feeling. These two players have seen their twilight seasons essentially wasted, and in a surprisingly similar way.
Barcelona were tasked with the improbable, and for 45 minutes on Wednesday night it looked like they just might pull it off. The Blaugrana stepped out onto the pitch at Parc Des Princes with a sense of purpose, and set about their business with the sort of vigour that has, for a long time, been absent from their play. They harried, ran and suffocated Paris Saint-Germain, setting out their stall with a defiant high line and quick passing and creating a slew of chances.
Dembele, missed penalty and other stories
It was their misfortune on the night that the vast majority of those opportunities fell to Ousmane Dembele, with whom the trophy for the Most Frustrating Footballer in world football resides. Quite how a player can clearly have all the ingredients needed but never be able to put them together, is confounding. Time after time, the Frenchman had the chance to stick the knife into PSG’s side; time after time, he baulked. At 23, there is still plenty of time for him to find the recipe, but you wonder…
And yet, it could all have been so different. When presented with the chance of the game from the penalty spot, it was Messi himself who held the club’s destiny in his hands. Not even with him was it secure. The ball crashed off the frame of the goal, and with it went any slim hopes of a second remontada. To go into the break with a lead befitting their overwhelming dominance was key; without that foothold, Barcelona so clearly lacked the same level of belief and intensity after the restart.
Koeman’s tactics failed at the Camp Nou
That first-half however left the nagging question: why couldn’t Ronald Koeman have set his side up like this in the first leg?
This shape, with a back three and Dembele offering speed and verticality in the attack, debuted about a fortnight ago in the La Liga defeat of Sevilla. Since then, Barca has not conceded from open play in four matches, and have looked dynamic in attack and more secure in possession.
Why did it take Koeman so long to figure out that La Pulga needs a striker ahead of him to stretch the play? Surely, it should have been clear to him, as it was to everyone else, that playing Messi centrally at age 33 was not likely to have the same effect on opponents or on his own side, and that there was only so much having Frenkie De Jong breaking forward from midfield could do in terms of offering a threat on the last line of opposing defences?
The misuse of Ronaldo
How Ronaldo’s misuse has led to the torrent of abuse from idiots on social media is even more annoying.
The Portuguese has, in the latter years of his career, become increasingly focused on impacting matches where (and when) it matters. This has led to him effectively abandoning his former wide role in favour of more central occupation, and it has prolonged his influence at the top level.
Yet, against Porto, the former Real Madrid man was as ineffectual as he had ever been in a Champions League knockout stage match in his career to date.
Juventus’ task was by no means insurmountable: they had a one-goal deficit from their trip to Estadio do Dragao, sure, but they also had an away goal as a platform on which to build. None of that mattered ultimately. It was Porto who went through, advancing on away goals despite a 3-2 defeat on the night.
Pirlo made Ronaldo redundant
Why was Ronaldo so muted? Well, since Andrea Pirlo took charge, the 36-year-old has actually been turning back the hands of time, albeit not in a good way. Whereas concentrating on finding space in the penalty area had defined his game toward the end of his time in Spain, at Juventus he has gradually been tasked with doing more in build-up play.
That has come to a head under Pirlo, with Ronaldo essentially playing a support striker role in a front two as a foil for Alvaro Morata, a gross misuse of Europe’s most clutch poacher. In previous seasons, he had provided telling moments for both European and Serie A games – his destruction of Atletico Madrid in 2018/19, and his brace against Lyon last season. This time, there was nothing: no manager has understood the essence of him less.
The two greats of this modern era have been united by their quest for excellence, and have done more to shape perceptions of the sport than anyone else in this millennium. And yet, despite 15 years’ worth of data and evidence to learn from, their final great season has been wasted thanks to a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are.
It would be hilarious if it was not so sad.