The ghost of Rome still haunts Lionel Messi and Barcelona as the side finds itself in Lyon for the first leg of its Champions League last-16 tie on Tuesday.
The Spanish champion won the domestic double last season in Ernesto Valverde’s first campaign as coach at the Camp Nou, but that achievement was marred by the nature of its exit from Europe. After beating Roma 4-1 at home in the first leg of its quarterfinal tie, it collapsed in the return in Italy, going out on away goals after a humiliating 3-0 defeat.
This season it has been driven by a desire to put that behind it and end Real Madrid’s recent dominance in the competition that has yielded three successive titles.
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Impressive in the group stage, now it arrives at Lyon’s 59,000-seat Groupama Stadium seeking a first away win in the knockout phase in six attempts since a 2-0 victory at Arsenal in February, 2016. “That shows that it is a hard competition, but challenges are there to be overcome,” said Valverde on Monday as he recalled last year’s exit.
“When we came into that match, I remember everyone telling us they were the best opponents for us, that they were the weakest side, but that did not help us. We need to come into these games not with our guard down but with our guard up.”
‘Glass half full’
Seven points clear at the top of La Liga, Barcelona is the favourite to beat a Lyon side appearing at this stage of the competition for the first time in seven years. However, their recent performances have been patchy, with three straight draws preceding Saturday’s laboured 1-0 win over Valladolid, in which Messi scored one penalty and had another saved.
“We are in a privileged position in La Liga, but this is a totally different competition,” said midfielder Sergio Busquets, who played when Barcelona drew 1-1 in Lyon at this stage 10 years ago, on the way to a 6-3 aggregate victory.
“Our recent statistics away from home in the Champions League have not been good. Winning away in this tournament is hard, but we want to see the glass half full this season with all that we have done well.”
That includes taking seven points out of a possible nine away from home in the group stage, with Barca notably beating Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 at Wembley in October.
Valverde has welcomed back former Lyon defender Samuel Umtiti into his squad after injury, but Brazilian midfielder Arthur and centre-back Thomas Vermaelen are both absent.
Nevertheless, Lyon has to cope without its captain Nabil Fekir, with the World Cup winner suspended for the first leg. The French side will hope to keep the tie alive before Fekir is able to return for the second leg at the Camp Nou on March 13.
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“I am not going to deny that he can be a decisive player for them. He scores goals, provides assists. His is an important absence for Lyon,” said Valverde of Fekir.
Defender Jason Denayer and France midfielder Tanguy Ndombele are in the Lyon squad despite being injury doubts, as the side looks to take inspiration from its performances against Manchester City in the group stage. It beat Pep Guardiola’s City side 2-1 away before a 2-2 home draw with the Premier League outfit as it came through the group stage unbeaten.
“They are two teams who have the same way of playing — they like to have possession of the ball, and they like to attack,” said Lyon coach Bruno Genesio, whose team also beat Paris Saint-Germain at home in Ligue 1 recently. “The experience can help us — we played really well in the two games against City, and if we were capable of doing it against them, we can do it again.”