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12th Apr 2018

Andres Iniesta bowed out of the Champions League on the same stage that saw Barcelona begin their dominance

"His exit from the club, like the display in Rome, the site of Barcelona's brilliant triumph over United nearly a decade ago, only serves to further convey how Barcelona have lost some of what made them the best team in the world"

Robert Redmond

Andres Iniesta looks to have played his last game in the Champions League.

Unlike Gianluigi Buffon, Iniesta didn’t bow out of Europe’s top club competition kicking and screaming, but the defeat was just as difficult to accept. Barcelona went into Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final second-leg with a 4-1 lead over Roma. Yet, what was meant to be a routine second-leg for Barca turned into an astonishing turnaround, as the club experienced their worst night in European competition for a very long time.

It’s almost a disservice to Roma to regard the 3-0 result as a “Barcelona collapse” – the Serie A team were worthy winners. They were superior in almost every aspect, winning the tactical and physical battle, Edin Dzeko was brilliant and Eusebio Di Francesco outwitted his Barca counterpart, Ernesto Valverde.

However, the Catalans looked tired. They will still win La Liga and possibly the Copa Del Rey this season, but to lose in such circumstances is gut-wrenching and dispiriting.

Barcelona regularly lumped the ball away, Luis Suarez appears to have lost some of his old spark and Iniesta has almost certainly played his last European game for the club. The onus on Lionel Messi to be Lionel Messi could become even more pronounced over the next couple of seasons.

Iniesta is 34 next month and out of contract in the summer. The Spanish midfielder will have to tell the club in the next few weeks if he plans to stay, but the signs point towards his exit from the club he joined over 20-years ago.

If Rome is to be his final European game for Barcelona, it makes for interesting symmetry. Barcelona began their period of dominance at the Stadio Olimpico with a 2-0 victory over Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final. The contrast between the Barca teams in the two matches is stark.

Back in 2009, they were vibrant, aggressive and proactive. Iniesta was majestic. He constantly dragged Anderson and Michael Carrick out of position and cut through them almost at will.

The only way to stop the Spanish midfielder was to foul him, but United couldn’t even manage that when Iniesta dribbled through to set-up Samuel Eto’o for Barca’s first goal on the night.

Iniesta is still a fantastic footballer, but at 33, his ability to get away from players understandably isn’t what it once was.

He was regularly fouled on Tuesday night against Roma, who got close to him and made sure he didn’t break away. It’s difficult to imagine Iniesta getting caught in possession like this a few years ago.

The Spanish midfielder wasn’t the only one to show signs of decline. Suarez may have only recently turned 31, but he appears to have lost some of his pace.

This type of pass would have been perfect for Suarez just a year or two ago, yet he was second to it against Roma and fluffed his pass when the ball did land with him.

While Barcelona as a team were a poor imitation of the side that took the world by storm a decade ago, particularly out of possession.

This is how Barcelona used to press, harrying their opponents in their half and forcing mistakes.

And here’s how they were out of possession on Tuesday.

Iniesta tried to get the press going, but instead of being the trigger for the midfield to follow suit, as he once was, he was an ineffective outlier as Barca retreated.

It’s possible there were other factors for Barcelona not pressing on the night as they once did. The team have played an awful lot of football so far this year, they were leading 3-0 on aggregate at the time and were prepared to play on the counter.

Yet, regardless of the context of the game, Barcelona teams of the past would not have allowed an opposition player this much time on the ball in the middle of the pitch.

While playing this way would have been sacrilege a few years ago, even if they are unbeaten in La Liga this season.

On BT Sport, following Konstantinos Manolas’ goal to put Roma through to the semi-finals, commentator Peter Drury had a brilliant line, exclaiming that “Roma have risen from their ruins!”

The stunning comeback, the aristocrats getting humbled by a team of comparatively modest talent and resources, and the setting of the Italian capital, all lent itself to an unforgettable sporting moment and a grand sporting narrative.

This could be viewed as the end of Barcelona’s dominance on the same spot where they forged their empire. Rome had witnessed another sacking. This time the flabby Barcelona empire, grown tired and stale by years of success, was overwhelmed by football barbarians, upstarts who seemingly had no right to even challenge their hegemony. However, like with historical grand narratives, it’s not quite that neat.

Football finances dictate that Barcelona will continue to reach at least the last-eight of the Champions League, barring a complete misstep earlier in the competition, and they’ll continue to win league titles in Spain. They’re still an excellent team with the best footballer of all-time in their line-up.

But the defeat will surely be cause for reflection for Barcelona, who were nothing like their old selves and haven’t been for quite some time.

When he joined up with the Barcelona first-team, Iniesta was that good Pep Guardiola turned to Xavi and said, “You will retire me, but this kid will retire us both.” Sir Alex Ferguson once said Iniesta, rather than Messi, was Barcelona’s dangerman.

“He’s fantastic,” the former United manager said.

“He makes the team work. The way he finds passes, his movement and ability to create space is incredible. He’s so important for Barcelona.”

Iniesta was one of the key cogs in the Barcelona “carousel”, as Ferguson described it, that made United “dizzy with their passing.”

The best Spanish footballer of his generation, it was fitting that Iniesta was the player who scored the goal that won Spain the World Cup in 2010. He was central to all their success and has been Barcelona’s best player after Messi over the last decade.

The defeat in Rome appears to be Iniesta’s last stand in the Champions League, denying him the chance to end his time at the Catalan club with a fifth European Cup victory.

His exit from the club, like the display in Rome, the site of Barcelona’s brilliant triumph over Manchester United nearly a decade ago, only serves to further convey how Barcelona have lost some of what made them the best team in the world.