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Barcelona burnout in Champions League highlights Valverde's rotation conundrum

Following their convincing first-leg win over Roma, ESPN FC's Craig Burley tries to explain what caused Barcelona's shock defeat in Rome.
Following their departure from the Champions League, the ESPN FC panel rate the success of Barcelona's season so far.
Following their departure from the Champions League, the ESPN FC panel rate the success of Barcelona's season so far.

Ernesto Valverde acknowledged the need for changes ahead of Barcelona's game against Celta Vigo on Tuesday. It's Barca's sixth game in 16 days and on Saturday they have the chance to win their first piece of silverware of the season when they face Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final.

With that in mind, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta will all sit out the game at Balaidos, while Ivan Rakitic is still sidelined after undergoing surgery on a broken finger.

The fear is that Valverde's acknowledgement has come too late, though, with Barca now out of the Champions League and the La Liga title looking increasingly like a formality -- they need just seven points from their remaining six games to be crowned champions of Spain for the seventh time in a decade.

One of the main points of discussion after Barca exited Europe in Rome last week was about Valverde's use of his squad. Some complained it has been close to non-existent. Their lead at the top of the table has never been lower than five points since January yet rarely has he taken the opportunity to rotate.

Lionel Messi, for example, has hardly missed a minute in the league and was also present for five of the gruelling run of Copa del Rey knockout games in January and February. The forward says he feels better when he's playing twice a week but it's legitimate to wonder if over-playing had something to do with the hamstring injury which kept him out of Argentina's friendlies against Italy and Spain in March.

The only league game Messi has sat out, in fact, was the win at Malaga. And that was only because of the birth of his third son.

It's been a similar tale for Luis Suarez, Rakitic and Jordi Alba and as Roma pinned Barca back at the Stadio Olimpico, the La Liga leaders rarely able to break into the Italians' half, you had to question why they looked so sluggish.

Ernesto Valverde has been reluctant to rest Lionel Messi despite overseeing Barcelona's stranglehold of La Liga.

The statistics confirm the sensations. Of a possible 2,880 minutes in La Liga, nine players have played over 2,000. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has played every single minute, followed by Messi (2,673), Suarez (2,513) and Rakitic (2,457). Valverde's preferred lineup across the season (which includes Paulinho over Philippe Coutinho, who didn't arrive until January) have all played over 1,500 minutes. Even Andres Iniesta, who has missed a number of matches through injury.

There's then a drop to 12th man Nelson Semedo, who has played 1000 minutes of league football. Then comes Coutinho (877), which says something about how little faith, rightly or wrongly, has been put in the likes of Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer, Aleix Vidal and Denis Suarez.

To put that into context, eight Barca players have played more minutes in La Liga than Real Madrid's most used player: Keylor Navas (2,160 minutes). Only three outfield players in Zinedine Zidane's squad have played over 2,000 minutes -- Casemiro (2,154), Cristiano Ronaldo (2,095) and Dani Carvajal (2,043) -- and even then it's only just. Madrid have 15 players who have played 1,400 minutes or more.

But are Madrid a great example? Zidane's rotation led to a La Liga and Champions League double last season but they're 15 points off the pace this year and out of the Copa del Rey. If it all goes south in Europe against Bayern Munich, they'll be left with nothing.

In that scenario -- because Madrid's success is intrinsically linked to Barca's -- Valverde would be validated. Domestic domination once again confirmed.

However, that shouldn't mean Valverde shouldn't learn from this season and the debacle in Rome. Especially when his six most-used outfield players will all be 30 by the end of the next campaign. He's quickly learning that league and cup success can mean nothing if you embarrass yourself in the Champions League.

"If we were second, one point off the leaders, they would be giving a lot more value to [winning] the league title," he quipped on Monday.

That's quite possibly true. The inevitability of Barca's pending title has sapped some of the excitement out of actually winning it for now. That shouldn't be forgotten when there are complaints about a lack of rotations.

Valverde, though, will do well to look at when the minutes are played in addition to how many. Was it necessary for him to play the same team against Eibar that he had planned for the trip to Chelsea three days later? And for Messi to play 90 minutes against Leganes at Camp Nou three days before the second leg in Rome?

Maybe it's simply just a lack of trust in his squad players?

Those squad players will be put to the test in Vigo, though, at a ground where Barca have been beaten in each of the last two league seasons, shipping four goals in the process.

With Pique, Busquets, Iniesta and Rakitic left in Catalonia, there will finally be a chance for others to get a share of the minutes.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.


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