This is a score seen by most Anfield faithful in their favour this season, rather than being the victim of such an oppressed scoreline. The defeat at Camp Nou is the largest deficit and defeat Liverpool has suffered, with it just being their 7th loss in all competitions this season.
Ever since the draw was made, the showdown between Barcelona and Liverpool has been the talk of the town, two highly offensive squads. Two former star players facing their Alma mater. A resurgent side that has been making waves in their league. A manager with nothing to lose. A special player on a mission to remind the world he is the best.
Barcelona have never knocked Liverpool out of Europe, never defeated them at Camp Nou. In their four decades of rivalries, only four matches were played there: two draws and two defeats. Only one goal was scored by the Catalans in those four matches – one by a retired Deco.
A high-pressured match up for the Champions League finals? No, this was more than that. This was personal.
Truth be told, most critics including myself have pointed out, this match up would plausibly be more worthy as a title decider than against whoever comes out of the clash between the high-flying Ajax and Spurs.
Barcelona has already wrapped up the La Liga title, their eighth in 11 seasons. Liverpool on the other hand, are only praying for a Christmas miracle – for Manchester City to drop points against Leicester City or Brighton. A draw or defeat for City would still not suffice as Liverpool has to come out triumphant against Newcastle and a feisty Wolves in the closing two weeks to even stand a chance.
Jurgen Klopp went into the match with a strange selection of players. A plan hatched to confuse Barcelona? Try everyone who is watching the match and following the run-up.
From a visual standpoint, it would seem like 4-3-3 with Naby Keita on the wings and Sadio Mane in the middle. But after several sites posted their take on the line-up, 4-4-2 seemed like a reasonable set-up, and yet again 4-1-3-2 with Fabinho sitting in front of the defence.
Out of all the possible outcomes, it turned out that Gini Wijnaldum will be starting on the left wing with Mane in the middle as expected. The Dutch international does not possess enough pace and technical ability to operate on the flanks and evidently, he did move into the false-nine position midway through the game. Taking over Roberto Firmino’s role in the squad is no easy task, and Wijnaldum’s off-the-ball movement was no where near as fluid as the Brazilian. He was anonymous most parts of the match until Klopp changed the formation to a 4-3-1-2 was when he tracked back to a much more familiar role in the central midfield but leaving Mane and Salah without an usher or a creative outlet in the CAM (central attacking midfielder) position.
An early injury to Keita gave Jordan Henderson the green light to be subbed on, and his recent flair for long cross balls did help the team offensively.
Joe Gomez also started ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold, it means there will be lesser crosses in from the right flank as Gomez does not primarily operate on the wings. Gomez’s inclusion was a surprise to everybody due to Alexander-Arnold’s spectacular recent form in the league.
Here, three issues come up. No natural left winger, no creativity from the middle, no crosses from the right.
Former Red Dietmar Hamann said, “I would suggest that Liverpool’s attacking unit is probably a better collective than Barca’s at the moment with Reds’ old boy Luis Suarez not at his very best. And Suarez and Lionel Messi need to find a way past one of the best central defenders in the world in Virgil van Dijk, who will receive excellent protection from Fabinho, who’s looking more and more like a top holding midfielder.”
Yes it is, but not without the right players on the pitch.
We have to understand that the weakest link defensively on the Barcelona side is their right where Sergi Roberto, Ivan Rakitic and Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique are deployed.
Roberto is not a defensively gifted full-back, but is somewhat similar to Fabinho – a utility box-to-box player. He has played in seven positions for Luis Enrique and excels mainly in work rate and passing. His defensive capabilities are dubious on occasions, and definitely not as clutch as Jordi Alba who plays on the left.
Rakitic and Messi are both offensive minded players, who do track back to defend but that task is left mainly for Arturo Vidal and Sergio Busquets who both act as the heart and lungs of the midfield for Barcelona.
On the other hand, Valverde knows that Liverpool’s right is also the weaker side.
Salah rarely tracks back, Gomez is inexperienced on the flanks, and Matip was the main central defender on the right. Milner’s contributions are not left unseen but against an explosive Jordi Alba plus a flamboyant Coutinho, it was almost impossible to mark them alone.
It was not tactically wise to attack Liverpool on their left, where Robertson and Van Dijk were focused on and not-coincidentally, where Messi is deployed.
The game started with Andrew Robertson driving down the left flank to deliver crosses but ended up being counter productive as when Liverpool lost the ball, the offense would start on the right for Barcelona.
Valverde noticed this and brought in Nelson Semedo to take over Roberto’s defensive duties on the right flank in the 60th minute. Coutinho came off and their formation changed to a 4-4-2 with Messi and Luis Suarez up front while Roberto went to the right midfielder position.
And that’s when it all fell apart.
The originator of the one-two flick-on and one-touch passes was showcased tonight, and Barcelona had more flair in these situations. The link-up play was flawless if not for Liverpool’s pesky defence.
Barcelona picked the locked bit-by-bit and eventually tore down the walls of Van Dijk and Alisson.
After breaking the deadlock from a cross by Jordi Alba on the left to Suarez, Messi scored following a breakthrough the middle which confused Liverpool’s defense, and took advantage of Gomez’s inexperience as well as miscommunication between Van Dijk and Matip.
The ball is blocked by the referee but see how Barcelona prepares for an attack focused on the left flank. Vidal is prepared to run down while Rakitic has already started tracking Messi’s run. Sergi Roberto, who moved into midfield, started his run way before anyone could read the play.
Gomez left out marking Suarez and only saw the run after Messi had collected the ball. Because Matip went up to close down on Messi, Van Dijk had to cover two interception lanes. Which in turn gave Suarez a lot of space for the follow up. A miss or not, Van Dijk failed to chase down and ensure a clearance which gave Messi the time to run it into the goal after connecting with the woodwork.
Liverpool was simply outclassed by the midfield of Barcelona.
Messi then did Messi-esque stuff. Scoring a top drawer free-kick against a caught out Alisson to make it 3-0. His 600th goal for the Catalonia club was nothing short of what the greatest living player should accept. Watch it below at 2:37 mark.
Liverpool actually played far better than what the score suggest. A host of opportunities to make it level or at least turn it into a respectable scoreline was disposed under the foot of its usual clinical star players.
Milner had two clear chances to score but he hit both straight at Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, who was underappreciated for his role throughout the season. The keeper made spectacular saves tonight which if not could have easily been 3-2 or 3-3.
Mane could not finish when Henderson delivered an early deep cross which saw him flick it over the bar. Salah had a low driven shot tipped away by the German custodian. In the closing minutes of the match, Firmino missed from the edge of the 6-yard-box after a goal line clearance from Rakitic and Salah smashed the woodwork in what seemed to be a certain goal there.
“In these moments, he is unstoppable,” Jurgen Klopp said afterward of Messi. “My boys didn’t show him too much respect or treat him harshly to try to stop him, but he is a world-class player and he showed that again tonight. What else can I say?”
Liverpool hosts Barcelona 8th May at Anfield for the return leg.