Lionel Messi went a long way to delivering on his pre-season promise to win the Champions League with two goals – one a brilliant trademark free-kick – in a 3-0 first-leg semi-final victory over Liverpool.
Former Reds striker Luis Suarez got the opening goal at the Nou Camp but just as the visitors were threatening to equalise, the Argentinian genius struck.
His first goal was via a huge stroke of luck as Suarez’s shot rebounded off the crossbar to offer a tap in – but the second was an absolutely sublime 25-yard free-kick.
No wonder 94,000 fans, as they have so many times in the past, stood as one to hero-worship their captain with chants of ‘Messi, Messi, Messi’.
The scoreline was harsh on Liverpool, who appeared to have weathered the storm and were causing Barca boss Ernesto Valverde enough concern for him to replace another former Anfield favourite Philippe Coutinho with right-back Nelson Semedo and change to 4-4-2 formation with the score at 1-0.
But in the blink of an eye the lead became three – making a comeback next week not impossible but incredibly difficult without an away goal.
And there was another kick in the teeth for Jurgen Klopp’s side as Roberto Firmino had a shot cleared off the line and Mohamed Salah hit the post in the same attack late on.
Suarez earned a headline-grabbing reputation at Liverpool so it should have come as no surprise he chose a semi-final against his first former club to score his first Champions League goal of the season.
The Uruguay international was never far from the limelight during his five years at Anfield – whether it be onfield abuse, biting incidents or finding the net.
He was once loved by the red half of Merseyside for consistently scoring goals with 82 in 133 games, although none in the Champions League as it was during the club’s absence from the competition.
The boot was on the other foot in Barcelona, however, as the 32-year-old proved the difference with a typical poacher’s finish in the first half and an unintentional assist for his team-mate.
With Firmino only fit enough for the bench after a muscle tear Klopp picked utility man Georginio Wijnaldum, a stand-in centre-back last season, in an unfamiliar false nine position.
Halfway through the tie.— Liverpool FC (@LFC) May 1, 2019
Ivan Rakitic’s early cross was blocked and Suarez headed the resulting corner into the side-netting but Liverpool posed their own threat with Salah playing like he was made for this grand stage, giving Jordi Alba and centre-back Clement Lenglet plenty of trouble.
Messi had kept a relatively low profile but he is most dangerous in short bursts and when he broke into the penalty area a goal seemed inevitable until Andy Robertson produced a brilliant sliding challenge to dispossess him.
That was a measure of just how good the Scotland captain has been this season but on the other side Joe Gomez, making his first start since breaking his leg in early December, was getting exposed by Coutinho drifting inside to allow Alba a free run.
It provided the breakthrough midway through the first half when Alba’s low cross was diverted in by the sliding Suarez, making good on his pledge to celebrate against his former side after his 25th goal of the season.
Despite the goal Liverpool had done a pretty impressive job and it should have been better had Sadio Mane not ballooned over a raking, low pass from Jordan Henderson – a 24th minute replacement for the injury Naby Keita.
Virgil Van Dijk’s proud record of never having been dribbled past this season looked like being beaten when he slipped with Messi in close proximity but the Dutchman’s recovery pace was such he not only managed to get back but also dispossess the Argentinian just as he threatened to break into the area.
Milner forced the first save out of Marc Andre Ter Stegen early in the second half and then wastefully shot straight at the goalkeeper after Wijnaldum had dummied Salah’s cut-back.
Barca’s change in formation did not seem to help them much as Liverpool continued to press for the equaliser.
But then fortune and some considerable Messi magic counted against them – and the margin would have been greater had substitute Ousmane Dembele taken advantage of two late chances.
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