UEFA Champions League 2018/19, Semi Finals
European Cup/Champions League Appearances: 29
Best Finish: Winners (5) 1991/92, 2005/06, 2008/09, 2010/11, 2014/15
Route to the last four
A 1-0 home win over Levante – the goal scored by Lionel Messi, of course – secured Barcelona their 26th league title at the weekend. The Catalan giants have now been champions in eight of the past 11 seasons in Spain, and sealed their latest title with three league games to spare.
Their progress in this season’s Champions League has been equally serene. A seemingly competitive group featuring Tottenham, Inter Milan and PSV Eindhoven was navigated without concern, while neither Lyon nor Manchester United offered much resistance in the subsequent knockout rounds – Barca scored nine goals and conceded only one across the four games that saw them into a semi final against Liverpool.
Before jumping straight into a Lionel Messi tribute, it is important to note that the Argentine’s supporting cast has had a vital role to play in Barcelona’s latest league triumph. The first El Clasico in 11 years to feature neither Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo ended with a 5-1 home demolition of Real Madrid back in October. Luis Suarez stepped up to claim a superb hat-trick, with Real head coach Julen Lopetegui dismissed only a day later. Suarez, incidentally, has now scored more than 20 goals in four consecutive seasons in Spain.
The departure of Neymar back in August 2017 was a first real test of character and leadership for head coach Ernesto Valverde (above) at one of the world’s biggest clubs. Since then, he has passed it with flying colours – the Spaniard has lost only three league games in 73, and none of those were against chief rivals Real or Atletico Madrid. His ability to take points off the big teams has certainly gone a long way to securing back-to-back championships, as has his use of Messi in a more central role.
Messi’s central relationship with Suarez – the duo have provided 55 of Barcelona’s 86 La Liga goals this season – has blossomed under Valverde. The Argentine’s central presence helps condense opposing back lines, providing the perfect spaces for Jordi Alba in particular to overlap from the left.
Suarez has also benefited from this, as he has often found himself with extra space to attack the right-sided centre-back before then combining or shooting on goal (above). Using Messi in a central role when out of possession has also given the likes of Sergio Busquets, Arthur and Ivan Rakitic an additional central outlet when winning the ball back in midfield (below).
Under Valverde this season, Barcelona have also proven resilient, grabbing 21 points from losing positions. Take their trip to Villareal in early April as an example – trailing 4-2 as the clock hit 90 minutes, Messi and Suarez somehow netted once each to rescue a point for the imminent champions. A quarter of their opening goals in La Liga have been scored in the 60th minute or later. Basically, this Barcelona team just keeps going until the job is done.
This is not to say they are impregnable, however. They are still averaging less than a goal a game conceded in La Liga, but they have twice conceded four times – away at Villareal and in a crazy home defeat by Real Betis.
Under Valverde, the Catalans tend to drop into a 4-4-2 mid-block that has helped improve their attacking transitions. Their thirst for possession is seen in constant, aggressive pressure on the opposing ball-carrier, which leads to frequent regains of possession.
However, when facing opponents with talented dribblers and/or players with excellent timing of release, Barcelona can have an issue. Strong runners can drive forward and draw individuals to the ball, which can narrow Barca’s midfield unit and open up both inside channels and particularly wide areas (above). In that way, opponents can find ways around their block.
Alternatively, teams can look to hit them during moments of transition – especially if Jordi Alba has moved higher from left-back. Leaving two central strikers behind the ball as Barcelona attack you (below) is a bold move – fewer players to deal with Messi and co – but it can be lucrative. The key here is the speed on the ball to attack Barcelona’s central defence and pivot, if Sergio Busquets has dropped in to make a unit of three. Additional supporting runners from midfield around the sides of Barcelona’s back line can add an extra threat, but the initial dragging and disorganising of the central unit is the first step to beating this Barcelona defence.
When defending the counter-attack, Barcelona’s back line instantly narrows to protect the central lane. From here, their full-backs and central midfielders, one of whom becomes a wider midfielder in the 4-4-2, are then responsible for tracking any wide runners. But the longer it takes Barcelona to score, the higher they push their central midfielders and full-backs when in possession. In turn, this makes recovery runs more difficult to perform, and the recovering distance only increases. With this in mind, Valverde’s substitutions are often for his full-backs or defensive midfielders – particularly as he wants to keep Messi and Suarez on the pitch for as long as possible.
The task facing Liverpool
Barcelona and Liverpool have met eight times in Europe, with the English side unbeaten in four visits to the Camp Nou. Both sides have a near fully fit squad – Roberto Firmino and Rafinha are the only real doubts – so how they contain their opponents during moments of transition could well decide this mouthwatering tie.
Both teams boast a host of defensively sound players, but it is at the other end of the pitch where they come alive – with arguably the two most dangerous front lines in Europe. Liverpool’s average possession has risen to 53 per cent in this year’s Champions League – impressive, considering they have faced opponents including PSG, Napoli and Bayern Munich – but Barcelona will still be expected to dominate the ball.
With Firmino not guaranteed to start, Mo Salah’s role after a Liverpool regain could be vital from Liverpool’s right. Left-back Jordi Alba is a key attacking force for Barca, but leaving Salah higher – with right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold perhaps assisted by Jordan Henderson or Fabinho – could be key to the Reds’ hopes of grabbing an away goal.
Valverde’s team selection is pretty straightforward, with his only real dilemma over whether to start with former Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho (above, right) or Ousmane Dembélé attacking from wide on the left. Alba is relentless from left-back, but Barcelona lack consistent attacking width from the right, with whoever of Nelson Semedo or Sergi Roberto plays at right-back slightly more conservative. This could also benefit Liverpool, with Sadio Mane – arguably Liverpool’s biggest form horse – and Andy Robertson then having more licence to attack.
It is likely that any spells of possession for Liverpool will see Barcelona again convert into their usual out of-possession 4-4-2, which relies heavily on a central midfielder – usually Ivan Rakitic or Arthur – quickly transitioning out wide on the right. This is another potential avenue for Jurgen Klopp’s team to exploit as they bid to reach their second consecutive Champions League final.