By Richard Martin
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Ernesto Valverde’s future as Barcelona coach hangs in the balance after presiding over a second shock Champions League elimination following Tuesday’s incredible 4-0 surrender at Liverpool, in which he again showed his inexperience.
Barca went into the semi-final second leg with a dream 3-0 advantage but, just as he had done in last season’s harrowing exit to AS Roma in the quarter-finals, Valverde fielded the same starting line-up as in the first leg.
That decision ignored how fortunate his side had been in the first match, in which Liverpool spurned numerous chances and Mohamed Salah hit the post.
His selection also wrongly assumed that his side would face the same conditions and challenges in the scorching atmosphere at Anfield as they had at the Nou Camp.
With Philippe Coutinho failing to contribute in defence or attack, Barca were overwhelmed in midfield in the second leg and kept being drowned out by Liverpool’s superb high-pressing game, failing to hold on to possession for long periods.
With his side trailing 3-0 after Georginio Wijnaldum’s quick-fire goals, Valverde even made the same substitution as he had done when 1-0 up at the Nou Camp, bringing on Nelson Semedo for the hapless Coutinho to push Sergi Roberto into midfield.
His team only regained control of the play when he brought on fluid passer Arthur Melo, even though the decisive goal scored by Divock Origi came after, helped by a calamitous collective lack of concentration from Barca’s defence.
Valverde has made outstanding progress since taking the Barca job in 2017, guiding the team to successive La Liga titles while leaving Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in their wake, and reaching back-to-back Copa del Rey finals.
But those achievements have practically been wiped out by the team’s galling exits from the Champions League, which Barca have not won since 2015.
For a club of Barca’s global stature, their count of five European Cups feels far too small, especially compared to Real Madrid’s staggering 13 triumphs, which has been swelled by four wins in the last six seasons.
“Valverde has shown his ability to win domestic trophies convincingly, but he has too small a mentality for a competition as big as the Champions League,” said an editorial in newspaper Sport.
“He made an unjustifiable team selection, picking Coutinho who flopped in the first leg and losing control of the play. He reacted far too late, when the game was already slipping away.”
The coach was in serious danger of losing his job after being knocked out by Roma last year despite their domestic dominance and even though he recently signed a new contract until 2020 his position will be questioned again.
“I don’t know how this affects my future,” Valverde said.
“We haven’t had time to think about those things. But here we are and the coach has to take responsibility.”
Barca striker Luis Suarez tried to shield his coach from blame.
“We are the ones that played the game,” said the Uruguayan.
“The boss used the same tactics as in the first leg and he tried to do the same thing here. We have to say sorry for the attitude and the things that everyone saw today.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge)