Fitting of the tournament- Barcelona vs Liverpool: An epic Champions League tie
Barcelona and Liverpool represent a football purist’s dream, a fixture headlined by the sport’s biggest stars, fuelled by some of its richest histories and intrigued by two vastly different philosophies.
The Spanish champions enter yet another European semi-final after a ruthless group and knockout stage run. Their ambition this year was simple, and boldly declared by their all-conquering hero before their Camp Nou opener at the beginning of the season; win the Champions League.
“[Last year] we all got stung in the Champions League. We promise that we will do everything possible so that this beautiful cup returns to the Camp Nou again,” captain Lionel Messi projected with intent, a clear warning to the rest of the continent.
He has, as ever, led from the front for the Catalan side, hitting an absurd 46 goals in 45 games across all competitions. Add 16 assists to that tally and Lionel Messi is contributing nearly 1.4 goals per game, an unfathomable tally for a 31-year-old who may still be at the peak of his powers.
Liverpool presents a near-polar opposite mantra; an 11-headed monster that can kill you from any position across the park. Last year’s side of flash but little substance has been replaced by a dogged unit that appears to take more pride in denying the opposition than scoring themselves.
LiveScore takes an in-depth look at the marquee semi-final and how each team can book their place in the Champions League final.
Barcelona consistently measure their season’s success based on European performance and not that of their domestic cups. With eight La Liga titles from the past 11 seasons, there is little for them to accomplish in that sector until Real Madrid resurrect themselves from their worrying irrelevance.
Messi’s pre-season sentiments have provided the narrative for their season, and it was best observed during his and Barcelona’s notably subdued celebrations following their sealing of the league title on Saturday evening. They know the season will be deemed a failure should they not lift this trophy.
During the Argentine’s call to arms, he made a point to reference the new signings the club had secured, notably Philipe Coutinho (who arrived mid last season), Arthur Melo, Clement Lenglet and Arturo Vidal.
“The signings that came will help us a lot to be better than we were,” he proclaimed to the near 100,000-strong at the Camp Nou. They certainly have, particularly Arthur, who haemorrhages what is commonly referred to within club circles as ‘Barca DNA’. A master at retaining and recycling possession, his immediate combination with Messi was key to his ascension at Barcelona, so much that Messi likened him to the legendary Xavi.
Clement Lenglet has usurped France World Cup winner Samuel Umtiti alongside Gerard Pique at the heart of their defence. Lenglet, a €36 million capture from Sevilla, is more in the ball-playing centre-half mould concurrent with Barcelona’s obssession with possession. Pique’s desire to roam forward means Melo and Sergio Busquets often are tasked at reverting into a four or three-man defensive line alongside Lenglet. All three are perfectly capable of quicking pushing the ball forward to Coutinho and Messi, who patrol the left and right flanks respectively, or Luis Suarez who looks to combine with his wingers and fullbacks with quick touches when retreating to help convert defence into attack.
Despite speculation among media and fans alike, Coutinho appears to be settling in to life at the world’s biggest club. The adjustment from being the focal point at Liverpool to at-best the third-most influential playmaker at Barcelona, combined with prolonged substitute appearances looked to be almost too much for the talented Brazilian over the first 12-14 months at the Camp Nou, but recurring injuries to starlet Ousmane Dembele has given Coutinho extended opportunities to impress, and he has largely done so.
Coutinho’s tendency to drift centrally intially found him crossing wires with Messi, who naturally does the same from the right. Messi and Suarez’s telekinetic relationship has been forged over a half decade, and Coutinho perhaps underestimated the ease in which Neymar was able to co-exist.
Where Neymar succeeded; an underrated unselfishness to keep width and shape, an allowing his more accomplished teammates to dictate play and he to merely follow their lead and most importantly prioritise Messi-ball, Countiho failed. Coutinho often polluted the final third by restricting passing lanes, shrinking defensive coverages and attempting the spectacular. As a result he would find himself below the much-maligned, juvenile Dembele, who proved a valuable outlet and clinical finisher playing the way Barcelona and indeed Messi wished.
Against Manchester United, Coutinho was nearer his electric best and it was largely thanks to a clear ambition from him to fit in with Messi rather than be Messi. The lone goal of the first leg at Old Trafford showed just that, with Messi darting across the box from the right flank to the left, something Coutinho quickly recognised and shifted into the central position while Suarez darted to the back post and nodded in the Argentine’s lofted pass.
He nearly doubled their lead following up another darting Suarez run at the United centre backs with a fierce effort on goal, again showing accrued patience and understanding for Barcelona’s reliance on their front three. Coutinho earlier in his time at the club may have sprinted forward to attempt to make something happen, rather than relying on the superior talent alongside him to make the right decisions.
Liverpool know what they will get from Messi and Suarez, an other-worldly combination built not only on a shared footballing perspective but a genuine kinship for one another, but it is Coutinho that presents the most intriguing piece of the puzzle. He is a different player from the one that departed Anfield for £105 million in January of 2018, and his ability to recognise that could prove crucial.
Will the familiarity of the royal red kit spark him into convoluting the system that he has began to blossom in, particularly in the second leg as he returns to Anfield where his career was reignited following an underwhelming period at Inter Milan? Or can Coutinho continue to justify the club-record fee Barcelona invested in him as the heir-apparent to Iniesta and the bridge to life post-Messi?
His impact on this tie will likely decide whether Barcelona’s season, by their own measurement, is a success or failure.
With just one loss and 91 points in the Premier League through 36 of 38 games, Liverpool could prove to be the greatest English side not to win the title. In nearly any other season throughout the competition’s history they would be runaway winners, yet they still find themselves trailing Manchester City by a solitary point that feels wider than the British Channel.
They threatened their potential during the Champions League last season, ripping through Pep Guardiola’s side in the quarter-finals before fending aside the Barcelona-conquering Roma in the semis. An early Mo Salah injury in the final against Real Madrid took the sting out of a most unlikely pursuit, but they have carried that form into this season and have added a steel at the back uncommon to England’s second most-successful club.
The easiest identifiers for that is the crown jewels of their back five, the world’s most expensive and arguably best defender, Virgil van Dijk, and the colossal Alisson Becker of Brazil between the posts. The two signings, £75 million and £67 milllion respectively, signalled absolute intent by the club to reinforce one of Europe’s most potent attacks with an equally as anaesthetic defence.
However, that defensive setup goes well beyond van Dijk and Alisson, and you can argue it is their star front trio that are the catalyst for the Premier League’s stingiest defence (20 goals conceded).
Jurgen Klopp’s self-titled “heavy metal football” can only function with the high and unrelenting press of their forward players. Sadio Mane has 33 tackles in the league, two short of van Dijk. Firmino has 29, Salah 20, but it is the intensity in which they attempt to force uncomfortable opposition defenders and midfielders into turning over possession. As Johan Cruyff once said of the high-press: “when you win back the ball, there are 30 metres to goal rather than 80”, a philosophy shared by Klopp.
Interestingly Liverpool’s top two tacklers are their marauding fullbacks, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who are the keys to both the side’s attack and defence. With the ball, they act almost purely as wingers, overlapping the front three to play threatening low balls across goal or recycling the ball from wider positions. In defence, their aggressiveness going forward means their opposites are forced to sit back, nullifying a counter attack. They also share the front three’s aggression in dispossessing the opposition and are given the license to do so, while the midfield trio slide to protect the flanks and cover the two central defenders.
Robertson and Alexander-Arnold will be critical to lessening the impact of Messi and Coutinho, and that is all they can hope to do, lessen it. As van Dijk so eloquently put it following their quarter-final victory over Porto, Liverpool have “no idea” how to stop the player he declared the best in the world. That is no shame, none have come close to stopping him, but Roberston in particular will have to do vastly better against the five-time Ballon d’Or winner than he did against Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry, who made arguably the world’s best left back look more like his oft-criticised understudy Alberto Moreno.
Robertson will have to be much more disciplined in his approach to pressing his legendary opposite. While Robertson leads Liverpool in tackles and sits 14th in the league in that department, he should not expect to be dispossessing the world’s finest player, instead he will be tasked at attempting to push Messi into spaces of uncomfortability and decreased influence. Denying him the opportunity to cut in and pull the strings will be on the foremost of Roberston’s mind, as it will be of the midfielder who sits on his inside, likely Jordan Henderson.
In the first leg Liverpool will have to accept a minor share of possession, but that could potentially play into their hands. They have torn through the Premier League with a ruthlessness in their press and confidence in those behind to cover for their aggression, and they will have to bring a similar level of fearlessness to the Camp Nou if they are to be any chance.
Barcelona are mighty, but not invincible. There are chinks in their armour, their insistence to play their way out of trouble and lack of genuine pace across the park will make the vulnerable, and shouldn’t worry Liverpool should they turnover possession themselves.
However, the Catalan side remain unbeaten at home in their past 31 European games, and one of football’s great cauldrons will demand a worthy challenger if it is to fall.