UCL Review: Why Liverpool got blanked in Spain and Barcelona battered in England
WHY LIVERPOOL GOT BLANKED IN SPAIN
Thirty-yards out, Alisson stood sure between the sticks as if daring the Blaugrana talisman to do the unthinkable. The Red wall in grey clothing, shoulders high, hearts unsure – with some palms, cup shaped and firmly fixed to protect the valuables; presentable a seemingly impenetrable force to the king. As per usual, Leo Messi was unmoved, fixing his eyes to a target that covered a twentieth of the entire goal mouth and with a stern face as that of Game of Thrones’ Night King, preparing to dissolve the wall and its commander. Two steps backwards and then forward, he whipped the ball, traversing in a direction that was inconceivable according to the understood laws of physics, it deserted everything and everyone else until it found its way into that top 5% of Liverpool’s goal mouth. A goal for the king and a third for Barcelona on the night, wrapping up a 3-0 score line in the first leg of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League semi-finals. We weren’t fooled, that rare moment wasn’t new at all. Quite characteristic of perhaps the greatest footballer that has walked the surface of the earth. Dejavu is the word, that is all it was!
At end of the ninety, Barcelona were already one foot into the final and the reality of Liverpool turning that score line in the second leg was nothing but a fleeting fantasy. Jurgen Klopp’s Red Army had played considerably well on the night but were left licking their wounds, mostly because of one reason, one word, one man and five letters. Messi! Things really got Messi!
Before things got Messi
Liverpool had been sailing in unfamiliar waters prior to this match in Spain. With a Premier League record that had them losing only once in over 30 matches, and unbeaten in 20, in all competitions to be precise, they had become the closest thing to perfection since sliced bread. En route to Catalonia, they had made light work of the Bavarians, dismissing them by 3-1 in Munich and dispatched Malian Mousa Marega’s impressive Porto by an aggregate score-line of 6-1, a side that had lost only once from the UCL group stages to the quarter-finals. Mount Virgil Van Dijk still seemed unsurmountable and prior to the Barca clash, the Dutch captain had been awarded the PFA Player of the Season, succeeding Mohamed Salah, in a thorough EPL campaign that propelled them to go toe to toe with Man City for the title. Senegalese Sadio Mane and the Egyptian king in Salah, were still firing across all cylinders and the African duo, simply flexing African talent on show by going head to head for the Premier League Golden Boot, scoring over 20 goals each. Only the Gabonese forward, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sergio Aguero were in the same scoring bracket. A total of 20 Premier League clean sheets, 87 goals scored, a point within table topping City and only a single game lost, the Merseysiders were soaring, it only would have taken something of a magician to put a stop in their tracks. And it did.
When things got Messi
Of course it was the Big Luis Suarez 9 who showed enduring class to put the La Liga champions ahead in the first forty-five, after intercepting Jordi Alba’s perfectly timed cross with a first time finish, under the noses of Virgil Van Dijk and Cameroonian Joel Matip. Yes, you heard right, Mount Van Djik was left for dead. That was actually the Uruguayan’s first champions league goal of the season, biting the hand that once fed him but not typically. At least this time it was all legal and metaphorical. Since then, it was all Liverpool, with Sadio Mane and Mo Salah causing all sorts of problems for the Barca defence, doing it all, except scoring. The close to 100 000 stadium capacity filled the faithful, they were forced to watch their heroes humbled off the ball in their own temple, but it was that humble approach that paid dividends.
Warrior Arturo Vidal was back to his best, thwarting almost every sensible threat and flying up and down in the middle of the park. Except for a few moments of lapse in concentration, Pique and Lenglet marshalled the Barcelona backline with class and experience, whereas Marc Andre Ter Stegen was available to superman anything that had deluded the rest of the team. It was almost as though, the Blaugrana was happy to soak in the pressure and hit Liverpool on the counter. Which is exactly what they did on the second goal. Possession was won in the middle of the park and Messi was available to oversee proceedings, sending Suarez through on the left wing, before the ball reakeshared off Sergi Roberto to the Uruguayan. Suarez instinctively hit the ball with his knee, only finding the upright before the ball returned into the box, where Leo Messi reacted quickest to chest and slot it home, again under the nose of the mountainous and tipped Balon d’Or candidate, Virgil Van Dijk. We all know what happened on the third goal. Liverpool were blanked by Barca’s humble approach camouflaged in Leo Messi’s superhero suit. The latter took his goal tally to 26 against English opposition, over 20% of his 112 champions league goals. His favorite customer is actually Chelsea, with 10 to his name. Even the second most expensive goalkeeper in the world, Alisson Becker, infuriated, hit the goal post as if to suggest it was the one dancing to the tune of the Argentine magician, made in Spain.
Liverpool had given their all, above and beyond. In addition to Barca’s humble approach, firing blanks in front of goal after 15 shots with 4 of them on target compared to Barca’s 12 whereas 5 were on target, was another important reason as to why they got blanked.
However, the story doesn’t end there. What happened in the second leg, couldn’t have been in any script whatsoever.
WHY BARCELONA GOT BATTERED IN ENGLAND
The 3-0 first leg win by Barcelona ensured Liverpool needed to score at least four goals to advance to the 2019 UEFA Champions League final in Madrid. That is four goals without conceding to a Barcelona side which is hardly shy of goals given the presence of those who need no introduction. To make matters worse, after missing Mane and Salah’s hinge, Roberto Firmino in the first leg, the Egyptian king was also going to join the Brazilian to the sidelines after suffering a concussion in a Premier League encounter against Newcastle. So was the Guinean dynamic midfielder, Naby Keita, who limped off in the early stages of the two legged tie in Camp Nou. In fact, he is reported to be at risk of even missing out on the June 2019 AFCON finals in Egypt. To say the least, they who never walk alone were facing an uphill task, only convicted to give their best shot in front of the faithful Anfield choir. Only memories of the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul, which they won after coming back from a 3-0 down at the end of the first half against AC Milan, offered glimpses of hope.
But even their gaffer, Jurgen Klopp remained pragmatic of the task at hand:
“Two of the world’s best strikers are not available tomorrow night and we have to score four goals against Barcelona to go through after 90 minutes. It doesn’t make life easier but as long as we have 11 players on the pitch then we will try and everybody knows that.”
Rapid red fire
It was all about the start by Liverpool. They were on the clear of the task at hand and wasted no time in going at Barcelona to push for the impossible. The Swiss attacker, Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi who were in for the absent Salah and Firmino were no strangers to the cause. Their usual press was more amplified, deliberate, energetic and did not look like them who would get tired. The soldiers in the Red Army quickly forced Barcelona into committing mistakes, most of all their former frontman, Philippe Coutinho. They got their first goal of the night as early as the seventh minute through Origi after some quick interplay between Senegalese Mane and Henderson off a Jordi Alba mistake. It was a much need breakthrough, that even lifted the roof and atmosphere to even more electrifying levels, making Anfield a total nightmare for the visitors.
It was not only the Liverpool front line doing the job by forcing mistakes and testing Ter Stegen. Prospective Balon d’Or candidate in Virgil Van Dijk was in charge at the back. Him and Matip were uninterested in any Barcelona threats, shoving aside all that came to Alisson’s goal. They however had to wait for the second forty-five to complete the comeback.
A blessing in disguise came through Liverpool’s way as Gini Wijnaldum made way for injured Andy Robertson. A midfielder for a defender, definitely the right attitude by the manager and his team who now had nothing to lose. Within a few minutes of coming on, the Dutch attacker bagged two goals in succession to put the tie level. Initially, he pulled off a Suarez to latch onto Trent Alexander Arnold cross, goalwards under the supervision of the ever fighting Vidal, Pique and Clement Lenglet. The second really shouldn’t have gone in, Gini was the only who rose to head an incoming cross from the left wing into the net as all of the Barca defence watched on. As if that was not enough, the fourth goal capped Barca’s horror showing.
Liverpool’s young full-back, Alexander Arnold once again had his fingerprints on the crime scene. TAA pulled off some quick thinking as he took a Liverpool corner, capitalising on the napping Pique who was playing Divock Origi onside as he tied his shoes close to the goalkeeper. The full back quickly sliced the ball onto the unmarked Origi’s path who had the simple task of powerfully putting the ball past Ter Stegen as everyone else watched on. The Red part of Anfield was elevated to ecstasy as the traveling Barca fans were forced into despair. The unthinkable happened, twice in the same tie. Firstly, the Messi free-kick and now Liverpool’s comeback. Mohamed Salah’s hoodie shared the message that had perhaps inspired the rest of the squad, “Never Give Up,” it read, as the Egyptian marched onto the pitch to join his teammates in celebrating the miracle.
Liverpool were rampant, rapid and clinical on the night but Barca were also just simply horrible. Suarez coined it perfectly, “we defended like children.” After an impressive and more disciplined approach in the first leg, they surprisingly looked off and uninterested from the start. Perhaps they got to comfortable and paid for it.
Haunted by the 2018 AS Roma Ghost
What is also true is that once the goals started coming in, the ghosts of the 2018 quarter-final in Rome perhaps started resurrecting in the La Liga champions’ minds. They had led 4-1 in the first leg at Camp Nou only to lose 3-0 and got knocked out the 2017/18 UCL competition on away goals rule under some miraculous circumstances. In the Liverpool tie, Blaugrana employed the same tactics and substitutions as in the first leg but looked a different opposition entirely. Even Lionel Messi’s magic never really popped, Gini’s “gini” reigned supreme instead. Fabinho, Henderson and company took every chance to swarm and annihilate the Argentine’s efforts in the middle of the park.
At the end of the day, it was Liverpool marching on to the 2019 Madrid final, their second successive UEFA Champions League final after as many years. It leaves many questions unresolved for Barca’s boss, Ernesto Valvedre, and his approach towards the UCL competition, after being knocked out twice under unfamiliar circumstances.
After all is said and done
Defending champions Real Madrid’s four UCL titles in the past five years ensured the fading of the reign of two El Clasico rivals (with Barcelona) who dominated Europe in the last decade. Outside the two, only Chelsea, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich had managed to win the Champions League in the same period. After being on the side lines for a long time, with their last major trophy coming in 2006, Liverpool have gradually returned to the big stage and staking a claim amongst Europe’s best. Two consecutive UCL finals is no children’s bread. After losing the 2018 final to Real Madrid, Liverpool however need to win the forthcoming June final against English rivals, Tottenham if they are to formally reign as one of Europe’s highly revered teams. If not, they risk writing another Juventus story. Completely dominant in the Italian Serie, coming close on two occasions by reaching the final in 2015 and 2017 but with no success on the biggest stage.
With regards to Liverpool’s remarkable turnaround that also inspired Spurs to follow suit against Ajax, one reason stands out to explain the event, they believed they could and they did.
With two all English finals in the UEFA Champions and Europa League, the first time four teams from the same country have achieved such a feat, 2019 is an English year as far as football is concerned.
Champions League Final (1st June 2019) Europa League Final (29 May 2019)
Tottenham Hotspur vs Liverpool Chelsea vs Arsenal