Lionel Messi. Always a privilege to be in his presence, of course, but boy does he ruin the night for those who dare to dream on visiting Nou Camp. Liverpool were doing well when he scored Barcelona’s second. And not just comparatively well, either.
Not just well by comparison to Manchester United, who were outplayed and chastened here last month. Genuinely well. Well enough to be level. They’d had several good scoring chances. One fell to James Milner from 12 yards. You always fancy Milner from 12 yards. He shot straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal.
And then, the first time Barcelona had really threatened Liverpool since opening the scoring in the 26th minute, Messi made it 2-0 now and the task grew so much harder. Then he scored a third, with a free-kick with eight minutes before them – and, well impossible’s a big word. Let’s just say it’s hard now. Really really really really really hard.
Credit Sergio Busquets, too, with alighting on the tactic that would change the game. It was – wait for it – give it to Messi. When he picked up the ball midway in Liverpool’s half he had a lot of team-mates calling for it in positions that were easier to hit. But none of them were Messi. So Busquets looked up, saw where Messi was, and hit him instead. It was a tough, eye of the needle pass, but worth every inch of the effort.
Messi turned and ran with a posse of Liverpool players in pursuit, and gave the ball to Sergi Roberto. He could do nothing with it, but Luis Suarez could – hitting the bar with his shot. Guess who it fell to? And Messi just carried on his run, with the ball at his feet, almost to the empty net.
The frustration of goalkeeper Alisson, as he kicked it in the aftermath, even harder than the scorer, summed up Liverpool’s disappointment. They did not deserve that.
MATCH FACTS AND MATCHZONE ANALYSIS
Ter Stegen, Roberto (Alena), Piqué, Lenglet, Alba, Rakitic, Busquets, Vidal, Messi, Suárez (Dembele), Coutinho (Semedo)
Arthur, Cillessen, Malcom, Umtiti,
Bookings: Lenglet, Alba, Suarez
Goals: Suarez (26), Messi (75, 82)
Alisson, Gomez, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson, Milner (Origi), Fabinho, Wijnaldum (Firmino), Salah, Mané, Keita (Henderson)
Lovren, Mignolet, Shaqiri, Alexander-Arnold
Referee: Bjorn Kjupers
So a third was really hard to take. But that’s Messi for you. He’s a genius. So when he stood over the ball after Fabinho conceded the free-kick there was always a chance it would curl up and over the wall and into the top corner of the net out of Alisson’s reach. Which is exactly what it did. Up the other end, Mohamed Salah, with the goal open, hit a post. He’s very, very good. But he’s not Messi. Who is?
The pre-match accusation was that Liverpool had set up negatively; the action itself contradicted that. Yes, Jurgen Klopp had selected Georginio Wijnaldum to occupy the role of the recovering Roberto Firmino – with the more defensively-minded Joe Gomez in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s right-back role – but that did not mean Liverpool played with caution.
They had a go, and shared possession, but Barcelona are a very good side and Firmino was a big loss. Indeed, it might have been better if Wijnaldum was utilised more conservatively. Very quickly, one was left with greater admiration for the skills of elite level forwards, having seen an understudy in the role.
To play the way Liverpool wish – or Manchester City, Tottenham, Barcelona, Ajax, Real Madrid – requires an array of technical ability that leaves even the best players floundering. Wijnaldum has been outstanding for Liverpool in midfield this season.
But then he isn’t getting the ball fizzed at him from all angles as Firmino is each week. Killing the ball at that speed, with so much close attention, and moving it on in a split second needs an extraordinarily high skill set. Too often the ball bounced off Wijnaldum when it would have stuck to Firmino. Not his fault, he was doing his best – but it meant Liverpool’s play often broke down at vital moments, when Barcelona’s didn’t
So while they had a good share of possession and clearly posed a threat, chances were scant. Sadio Mane went over cheaply for a penalty shout that was rightly denied and Clement Lenglet was booked after losing Mohamed Salah and tugging him back, but there was only one real opportunity for Liverpool in the first-half, and it came after 35 minutes.
Jordan Henderson, who came on for the injured Naby Keita after 26 minutes – an interruption that seemed to disrupt Liverpool’s rhythm – whipped in an excellent cross from the right which fell to the feet of Mane. He had good sight of goal, but did just about everything wrong – snatching at the shot while leaning back, and sending it sailing high over the bar.
Barcelona’s build-ups were more measured and it was testament to Liverpool’s defence that just one goal separated the teams at half-time. After just three minutes, Philippe Coutinho found Ivan Rakitic, who was thwarted by a block from Gomez.
The tackle by Andrew Robertson that kept Lionel Messi out after 13 minutes, however, was almost as beautiful as a goal. From that position Messi has scored, literally, hundreds of goals. The late run into the central position in the penalty area, seeing a spot that no-one else has identified – despite it being so obviously dangerous – and identifying a way to get there by stealth.
It’s almost shape-shifting, his ability to move around the pitch unnoticed, when really his every step should be accompanied by sirens. Yet Robertson recognised him, recognised the danger, saw the future, what was about to happen next. When Messi arrived at the ball, the full-back met him there and his tackle took the ball out for a corner.
Messi looked genuinely startled by this development; as if the grown-ups had discovered his secret hide-out. He responded with a great dribble two minutes later, that ended with a pass to Coutinho and a shot well saved by Alisson.
The disappearance of Keita on 24 minutes, however, hurt Liverpool. Henderson’s first involvement was to get nutmegged, and he hadn’t quite recovered his equilibrium when it all went wrong for Liverpool on his flank. Gomez’s throw was intercepted and Liverpool never got the ball back from there, until it was being plucked from their net for the restart. Countino was involved, but the cross belonged to the dangerous Jordi Alba.
It was perfectly timed, but Luis Suarez’s run turned it into poetry. The timing, the execution, it was a stunning example of goalscoring craftsmanship, darting between the centre-halves to emerge in clean air, a slotting the ball past Alisson.
It looked one for VAR but replays showed Suarez’s run so quick, so alert, that he was a good two yards onside when the cross was delivered. He celebrated too – none of that faux respect for football’s prince of darkness. More power to him for that, too.
Liverpool almost had cause to celebrate two minutes after half-time, mind. Good work from Wijnaldum saw James Milner force the first real save of the game from Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal. From the next attack, Salah hit a low shot having cut in from the right, that saw ter Stegen down quickly to tip it around the far post.