Liverpool verdict - Lionel Messi leaves Champions League dream in tatters
By James Pearce for Liverpool Echo
23:28, 1 MAY 2019Updated23:46, 1 MAY 2019
How to make sense of a crazy, chaotic night in Catalonia.
Liverpool's Champions League dream is hanging by a thread after a devastating defeat at the hands of Barcelona.
Jurgen Klopp and his players walked away shell-shocked – scarcely able to comprehend the scoreline staring them in the face.
Rarely has a team contributed so much to such a magnificent spectacle and emerged with so little to show for it.
Make no mistake, this was cruel in the extreme. Liverpool, whose proud 19-game unbeaten run bit the dust, dominated for long periods but were ultimately left with a barrel-load of regrets.
They were undone by poor finishing, rank misfortune and the breathtaking brilliance of the greatest player on the planet.
The Reds produced a gutsy response to Luis Suarez's first-half opener but gilt-edged opportunities were squandered before Lionel Messi took centre stage.
The Argentinian genius struck twice inside the final 15 minutes to leave Klopp's men with the mother of all mountains to climb in the second leg at Anfield next Tuesday night.
Is it over? No. The defiant chants of 'Liverpool' from the 4,600-strong travelling Kop long after the final whistle was a telling sign that they haven't thrown in the towel. They still believe that this journey could lead to Madrid on June 1.
After all this is a club famous the world over for producing miracles on the European stage. When you have fought back from 3-0 down at half-time to beat AC Milan and lift the trophy, the prospect of overturning the same scoreline in the space of 90 minutes against the La Liga champions doesn't seem impossible.
Anfield will be rocked to its foundations in order to provide inspiration next Tuesday night but Liverpool will need to produce a performance close to perfection to overturn the three-goal deficit against Ernesto Valverde's side.
Their failure to net an away goal leaves them in the perilous position of knowing that if Barca score once on Merseyside, Liverpool will need to bag five.
For Klopp, the most pressing challenge will be to ensure that the hurt from this punishing setback doesn't linger. The Reds simply don't have time to feel sorry for themselves.
There's still a Premier League title to be won. They need to lick their wounds and come out swinging against Newcastle at St James' Park on Saturday night to pile the pressure back on rivals Manchester City.
There's too much still at stake for any hint of negativity to creep in. Liverpool have showcased their powers of recovery at times this season and they need to do it again.
With Roberto Firmino only deemed fit enough for a cameo role off the bench late on, Klopp had sprung a surprise by deciding to fill the void with Gini Wijnaldum.
It was an imaginative solution to a major problem considering that the Reds simply don't have a like-for-like replacement for Firmino.
The versatile Dutch midfielder found himself playing in the middle of the front three and his energy helped set the tone during a highly promising opening burst.
Rather than retreat, Liverpool were bold and hunted in packs to shut down space – hassling and harrying Barca's backline.
Sadio Mane's pace unsettled Gerard Pique, who was fortunate to get away with a clumsy challenge which sent Mane sprawling inside the box.
The speed and intensity of the contest was magnificent. Joel Matip was alert to thwart Ivan Rakitic before Andy Robertson made a goal-saving tackle on Messi.
What a setting for Joe Gomez to make his first start since he broke his leg at Burnley in December after getting the nod ahead of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Predictably, he tired late on.
Gomez had Philippe Coutinho flying at him and Jordi Alba rampaging down the outside. James Milner sensibly tucked in to ensure Liverpool were almost playing with a back five at times.
Fabinho was bright and alert on his return to the side as he helped break up a succession attacks.
Barca appealed for everything – desperately crying to crank up the pressure on Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, who rightly stood firm after a handball shout against Matip.
Having started brightly on the left, Naby Keita's night was ended by a groin injury as he limped off and Jordan Henderson replaced him.
Liverpool had dealt well with everything Barca had thrown at them but on 26 minutes the deadlock was broken.
Alba's delivery from the left was pin-point and Suarez stole in between Matip and Virgil van Dijk to arrow the ball past Alisson Becker.
The Uruguayan frontman had vowed that he would celebrate against his former club and he was true to his word. There was no sentiment here. Suarez was an absolute pest throughout as he picked fights and harangued the officials.
The opener didn't rock the Reds. They kept their heads in the cauldron of noise. Liverpool continued to look threatening on the counter and Henderson's whipped pass picked out Mane, who at full stretch turned it over the bar.
The mood around the Nou Camp changed in the second half as jubilation was replaced by frustration. The visitors grew in stature and took control as the home fans whistled and jeered. All that was lacking was a clinical edge in the final third.
Milner forced a sprawling save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen after being teed up by Wijnaldum. Salah's influence increased as he darted inside and his low left-footer skidded off the turf and was tipped behind.
The chances kept coming with Van Dijk and Salah combining before Milner fired straight at the keeper. What a waste.
Valverde took action to try to stem the tide, hauling off the largely ineffective Coutinho and bringing on Nelson Semedo with Sergi Roberto moved into midfield. It did the trick.
Centre-backs Van Dijk and Matip stood firm. When Arturo Vidal looked destined to put one on a plate for Suarez, Van Dijk made a crucial interception. Soon after it was Matip striding across to dispossess him.
With 15 minutes to go Barcelona doubled their account. Fabinho halted Messi but as Robertson tussled with Sergi Roberto, the ball bounced into the path of Suarez who hammered against the woodwork. Messi chested the ball down and walked it in.
If that was lucky what followed was simply sensational as Messi stepped up and curled an unstoppable 30-yard free-kick into the top corner. Here was a master at work – his 600thgoal for Barca.
From the depths of despair, the Reds should still have salvaged a lifeline.
Firmino, who belatedly replaced Wijnaldum, saw his effort cleared off the line by Iavn Rakitic. Salah looked certain to convert the rebound but struck the post.
It could have got even worse for the Reds deep into stoppage time but substitute Ousmane Dembele missed a sitter.
After all the talk about how Klopp had described the Nou Camp, this place proved to be Liverpool's Temple of Doom.
Liverpool: Alisson, Gomez, Matip, Van Dijk, Robertson, Fabinho, Milner (Origi 85), Wijnaldum (Firmino 78), Keita (Henderson 24), Mane, Salah.
Not used: Mignolet, Lovren, Shaqiri, Alexander-Arnold.
Barcelona: Ter Stegen, Sergi Roberto (Alena 90), Pique, Lenglet, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Vidal, Messi, Suarez (Dembele 90), Coutinho (Semedo 60).
Not used: Cillessen, Arthur, Malcom, Umtiti.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Netherlands)
Goals: Suarez 26, Messi 75, Messi 82.
Bookings: Lenglet, Suarez, Fabinho.
Man of the match: Joel Matip. Could hold his head high.
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