When Liverpool line up against Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night, they will do so as the only English team to have beaten the Blaugrana at the famous stadium – having done so in 1976 and 2007.
Strangely for this Liverpool side, a Champions League semi-final against the recently-crowned La Liga champions seems like somewhat of a relaxed affair – at least compared to the massive pressure of their title race in recent weeks and months. For fans heading over to Catalonia, there’s plenty to enjoy and less pressure than an away day at Newcastle next weekend.
Indeed, most fans are in an optimistic mood ahead of the two-leg affair against the side that has won four of the last Spanish league titles and four Champions Leagues since the Reds’ last success in 2005.
There are, though, plenty of reasons for such optimism among the travelling Kopites....
1. Fabinho can marshal Messi
This will be the first competitive meeting between the two European giants in 12 years – when John Arne Riise and Craig Bellamy scored just days after a dust-up between the pair involving golf clubs at a training camp in Portugal. Only one player remains from that match in 2007: Lionel Messi.
On that night, Rafa Benitez produced one of his tactical masterstrokes to keep the then-20-year-old quiet, deploying new signing Alvaro Arbeloa for his first Reds start in an unorthodox position at left-back. Arbeloa had already played against Barça that season, for Deportivo La Coruna, and Benitez decided that the right-footed player would be ideal to stop the prodigiously left-footed Messi cutting inside. It worked.
This time, there will be no such tactical solution and Liverpool’s left side of defence will be as it has for almost the entirety of this campaign, with Andy Robertson at left-back and Virgil van Dijk at left centre-back. There is no need for a change in tactics when you have the PFA Player of the Year and left-back of the year.
Football has changed in the decade-plus since Messi’s first outing against Liverpool, though, and rather than him being up against Robertson, the Argentine will cut inside and play between the lines in his trademark style. That means Liverpool’s holding midfielder will be key – whether it’s Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson of Fabinho.
The latter would likely be the best option, given Fabinho’s excellent ability to break up play and close down players such as Messi. The Brazilian was left out of the squad for Friday’s win over Huddersfield as a precaution after a head injury at Cardiff, but it could well be a case of Jurgen Klopp ensuring he is fully ready for the challenge of protecting Liverpool’s defence at the Camp Nou.
2. Lethal on the counter
As Barça sealed their 26th La Liga title on Saturday evening at home to Levante, they did so by a one-goal margin thanks to Messi – after the Argentine had been rested for a sub role initially.
This game, like many this season for the Spanish giants, showed that they are not the Barcelona of recent times. They're very good, of course, but there does seem to be a reliance on Messi that wasn't quite so obvious during the years when he had Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Neymar for company.
Levante also exposed Barça’s weaknesses, and were it not for some poor finishing from their opponents they would have postponed the title win until next week. Defence has never been Barcelona’s strength and their current one is certainly a weakness, especially on the counter attack.
That plays right into Liverpool’s hands. Indeed, Liverpool are dangerous even when defending a corner and have frequently ripped teams apart this season by breaking at speed. Barcelona will struggle with such quick transitions. Sergio Busquets isn’t exactly shy of a yellow card, and Roberto Firmino will put Barça’s holding midfielder under pressure if he's fit, meaning tactical fouls will become harder to prevent.
3. Perfect players to exploit weaknesses
Seemingly, Liverpool are made up in a way that will cause Barcelona problems. Liverpool’s strengths are Barcelona’s weaknesses.
In Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah especially, Liverpool have players who can break at lightning speed and expose Barcelona on the transition.
The two wide forwards could be likened to Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery when Bayern Munich left the Camp Nou stunned in a 3-0 win back in 2013. That was a Bayern side with a similar makeup to this Liverpool team; full of players in their prime, with a strong work ethic, a solid defence, goalscorers out wide and an effective but less acknowledged centre-forward.
Depending on the fitness of Firmino especially, Klopp has a conundrum in midfield. Does he start Fabinho as the holding midfielder? And if so, which of Henderson, Wijnaldum and the recently in-form Naby Keita miss out? It will likely be the latter as Klopp will want to get back to Anfield with the tie in his team's hands. But should Keita get the nod, he is a player who can quickly move the ball from defence to attack and draw fouls from his opponents. He could have a key role from the bench.
4. A defence to rely on
Rarely are the Catalan side up against a team that have as much pace and power as this current Liverpool side, who are excellent at pressing, can set traps for their opponents, transition at lightning speed, cause problems on the counter-attack, but also defend expertly.
In recent games, though, opposition sides have targeted Liverpool’s right side of defence, which is unlikely to be the case for Barcelona who deploy Messi on the opposite side.
Nonetheless, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joel Matip will need to be on form - potentially up against former team-mate Philippe Coutinho and Barça’s top assist-maker in Europe this season, Jordi Alba. Support from the likely midfield of Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum will be needed.
Similarly, that trio will try to swarm Messi and prevent him making his little darting runs at the defence, or to get space and play line-breaking passes. “You have to create a cage,” Jose Mourinho analysed before Manchester United’s trip to Barcelona in the quarter-finals, also noting that Liverpool's midfielders are experts at such tactical work.
And that’s the issue for Barcelona again: Liverpool are superb defensively this season, not just with Van Dijk but the whole unit, including the midfield and attack ahead of them.
If Liverpool can stop Messi, they will likely leave the Camp Nou as favourites to progress to a second Champions League final in successive years – and keep Klopp’s record of having never lost a two-legged match as Liverpool boss intact.
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