Champions League defending champions Barça began the quest for back-to-back titles with a 1-1 draw at AS Roma tonight. Luis Enrique’s men got off to an excellent start when Luis Suárez headed in from Ivan Rakitic’s cross in the 21st minute. Barça looked well in control at this point but ten minutes later, out of the blue, Roma’s right-back Alessandro Florenzi scored a remarkable goal from 50 yards to equalize. The draw will not worry Barça as much as the knee injury suffered by Rafinha just a minute after coming on as a substitute. The young midfielder was stretchered off and could be out for months.
The only surprise in Luis Enrique’s team selection was to see Jeremy Mathieu named in defence in place of Javier Mascherano. The Frenchman was used to counter the physical presence of Edin Dzeko and he performed his duty perfectly. The main danger from the home side came from the speed of Mohamed Salah on the right but there was little real threat throughout the game on Ter Stegen’s goal.
Barça’s slick passing game was soon the dominant feature though Messi and Suárez both failed to find the target with early efforts on goal. Messi had another shot blocked after an exchange of passes with Neymar as Roma’s 4-3-3 formation was forced back and usually resembled a 4-5-1. Barça’s dominance bore fruit in the 21st minute when Mathieu’s chip forward into the area found Rakitic whose cross took a slight deflection before looping over Szczesny and finding Suárez free at the far post to score with a header from a yard out.
With the goal advantage Barça were looking very comfortable, happy to play keep.ball while Roma chased shadows. Suárez had a penalty appeal turned down after Szczesny dived at his feet but it only seemed a matter of time before Barça increased the lead. Then in the 31st minute Neymar gave a poor pass to Rakitic, Florenzi intercepted and then shrugged off Rakitic and sped up the right. As Florenzi crossed the half-way line Busquets was coming across to block his advance. The Italian seemed to be running the ball out of play and few could have expected what came next as with no other options available he let fly towards goal from five yards inside Barça’s half. Ter Stegen saw the ball coming but could do nothing as it flew over his head and bounced in off the far post.
The goal lifted the home crowd and Barça would find things more difficult from now on. Messi tried but with little luck and his passing was not as incisive as usual. Rakitic was also not at his best and as the passes started going astray Roma pushed forward. Nainggolan forced Ter Stegen into a diving save in the 43rd minute and shortly before half-time Salah showed his speed again but shot well wide.
Barça began the second half strongly with Szczesny needing to save from both Messi and Suárez in the first two minutes. The Polish goalkeeper was injured by Suárez’s studs in the second save and had to be replaced by Morgan De Sanctis. Barça were unable to build on the good second half start and with Roma looking more comfortable Luis Enrique decided to replace Rakitic with Rafinha just after the hour. The young Brazilian was only on the pitch for a minute when he received a crunching tackle from behind from Nainggolan. The Roma midfielder was booked for the challenge while Rafinha was stretchered off and replaced by Mascherano.
Barça’s rhythm was broken by the changes with Busquets moving to the right of midfield to make way for Mascherano. The team struggled to regain the early dominance but in the 77th minute Messi played a one-two with Suárez before sending the ball into Neymar. Everybody expected Neymar to return the ball to Messi but instead he turned the other way only to see his shot deflected for a corner. A minute later Messi controlled a ball dropping into the area and then reacted quickly when the ball bounced off Rüdiger’s knee to send a dipping shot that bounced out off the top of the crossbar.
Dzeko offered a final threat from Roma but his deflected shot went straight at Ter Stegen. Then in the five-minutes of injury time Messi found Alba’s late run into the box but after Barça left-back lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, Manolas was on hand to head away the danger. Barça’s final effort came with a long shot from Sergi Roberto after De Sanctis’s punch but the keeper recovered well to save.
Of course Barça always want to win, but given that this was the first game in the group stage, a draw away at the strongest of our opponents must be seen as a positive result. Mathieu deserves most praise for a very solid game. With opportunities more scarce for the central defenders, he took his chance to demonstrate his strengths very well.
It would be harsh to blame Ter Stegen too much for the goal conceded. Before Florenzi shot, the danger from a potential pass towards the centre-forward was much more likely and a modern-day keeper must always be ready to sprint out to intercept. The goal conceded at San Mames in the Supercopa was his fault because he came too far to head clear and then headed the ball straight down the middle. Tonight’s goal was a real freak and I’d bet most top goalkeepers would also have been caught out by such a shot.
The news about Rafinha is of more concern than the lack of ambition after Roma’s goal. Having lost Xavi and Pedro this summer he was going to be called on much more than last season. Our lack of back-up until January is beginning to look very worrying.
Roma: Szczesny (De Sanctis m49); Florenzi (Torosidis m85), Rüdiger, Manolas, Digne; Nainggolan, De Rossi, Keita; Salah, Dzeko, Iago Falque (Iturbe m81).
Barça: Ter Stegen 6; S.Roberto 7, Piqué 6.5, Mathieu 8, Alba 7; Rakitic 5.5 (Rafinha m61 –(Mascherano m65, 6) Busquets 6.5, Iniesta 6.5; Messi 7, Suárez 7, Neymar 6.
Goals: m21 Suárez 0-1, m31 Florenzi 1-1.
Yellow cards: m63 Nianggolan, m75 Piqué,