Lionel Messi magic puts Barcelona in command of semi-final with Liverpool
Sometimes it feels like there are no more superlatives left. Seriously, what else can be said about this little guy with the No 10 shirt and magic in his feet other than to ask, perhaps, whether there is anyone who wants to persist with the argument that Pelé, or Diego Maradona, or any of the others, have ever played this sport any better?
There really can be no argument left when Lionel Messi takes the game to these levels and, for Liverpool, that created a harsh reminder about the realities of the Champions League. The truth is that Jürgen Klopp and his players could be forgiven for thinking they might have come away with a significantly better result. They certainly had their chances, at 1-0, to put themselves in a better position for the return leg. At this level, however, the teams that generally succeed are the ones with the clinical edge. Or the ones, in Barça’s case, who have a genius in their ranks.
A genius? Well, what other word can be used to describe Messi when he decorates football’s biggest occasions with the kind of gorgeous free-kick he curled in here for Barcelona’s third goal? Messi had scored Barcelona’s second, seven minutes earlier, after Liverpool had already suffered an opening goal from Luis Suárez, a one-time Anfield hero. Did he celebrate? What do you think?
We should know enough about Suárez by now to realise he is not one for football chivalry. He just is not wired that way, particularly when it is a Champions League semi-final and his team are trying to win their third treble in a decade.
Realistically, it is difficult now to see any way that Liverpool’s supporters can add “Madrid 2019” to the banners on the Kop that flutter with nostalgic memories of Istanbul 2005, as well as Rome 1977 and 1984, plus Wembley 1978 and Paris 1981. True, Liverpool will try to remind themselves of all the teams who have wilted at Anfield over the decades. Equally, they found out here how difficult it is to restrain Messi without being able to land a decisive blow themselves.
Of all their regrets, it was their inability to score an away goal that might wind up Klopp the most. Sadio Mané wasted a glorious chance in the first half and, late on, Mohamed Salah turned his shot against a post after a goal-line clearance had spun his way. That, in a nutshell, perhaps sums up the difference between Messi and the players on the next rung below – the ones who can be described as great footballers without necessarily being football greats.
At times Barça’s plan seemed to revolve around nothing more than getting the ball to Messi and hoping he would be able to weave past however many defenders stood in his route. And Messi, being Messi, he always looked up for the challenge.
Even ignoring, for a moment, his two goals, how about the occasion in the first half when he showed the ball to Andy Robertson then dinked it over his opponent with such audacious brilliance, not even breaking stride, a roar of approval swept round this cavernous old stadium?
Soon afterwards, he had deceived Fabinho in such a way the mind went back to James Milner trying to stop Messi on a previous assignment here, four years ago, with Manchester City. On that occasion Messi’s nutmeg left Milner on his backside and when the camera panned to Pep Guardiola, watching the game in the stands as Bayern Munich’s manager, he had his head in his hands, roaring with laughter at the impudence of his former player. No wonder Milner made sure, with a shoulder-barge to send Messi into touch, that the Argentinian knew of his presence in this rematch.
Not that Messi is unaccustomed to that kind of treatment. He takes his revenge with the kind of run that sparked panic in Liverpool’s defence, with 75 minutes on the clock, leading to Fabinho inadvertently turning the ball into the path of Sergi Roberto, who was running through the middle. Robertson dived in and when the ball broke to Suárez his volley thudded against the crossbar. Messi was following up to control the rebound and nonchalantly run the ball into an exposed net.
His free-kick came next: 25 yards out, another elegant swipe of that left foot and an almost inconceivable trajectory to take the ball wide of the four-man defensive wall before curling towards the top right-hand corner of Alisson’s goal. The ball was still rising as it hit the net and, briefly, Liverpool’s players strayed dangerously close to losing their composure. Alisson had to be waved back to his own goalmouth after deciding to go forward for a late corner. Salah’s shot against the woodwork was a grievous blow for Liverpool and the substitute Ousmane Dembélé, set up beautifully by Messi on a two-against-two breakaway, really ought to have made it 4-0 with the final kick of the night.
Messi was so predominantly involved it felt strange, to say the least, that he did not actually play a key part in the opening goal. Arturo Vidal had switched the play with a long, diagonal pass from right to left. Philippe Coutinho turned the ball into the path of Jordi Alba and the cross was beautifully weighted to give Suárez the chance to steal in behind Liverpool’s centre-halves. Virgil van Dijk had not been quick enough to push out and Suárez slid in, jutting out his right leg, to apply the decisive touch.
Presumably, Klopp will bring the fit-again Roberto Firmino back into his starting lineup for the return leg and Trent Alexander-Arnold will take over again from Joe Gomez as a more attacking choice at right-back. Yet Liverpool’s disappointment was compounded by an injury to Naby Keïta and, barring something extraordinary, Tuesday’s game will almost certainly be their last involvement in this season’s competition.
To put it into context: if Barça score one, Liverpool will need five.
Speaking to BT Sport, Liverpool’s manager sounds disappointed, but philosophical. “Football is like this,” he says. “It’s about scoring goals and they scored three goals and we scored none. The performance was great and the boys were really good. I’m really happy with the performance but I’m not happy with the result. You don’t get grades in this game, you only get a hard result.
On the subject of his team’s profligacy in front of goal. “What can I say?” he asks. “It’s easy to talk about goals, but how we created the chances was outstanding. How we caused them problems was outstanding. How we played it - I don’t know if we can play much better.”
He has a little grumble at the play-acting of some of Barcelona’s more experienced players (yes you, Luis). “We’re 3-0 down but let’s recover and go to Newcastle,” he says. “The game is over, but whatever I say will not change the result. We will play again and see what happens. We have not made our lives easier.”
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