- Suarez (26)
- Messi (75, 82)
UEFA Champions Semi Final 1st Leg, May 1 2019
Barcelona dealt a near fatal blow to Liverpool’s hopes of reaching a second straight Champions League final, with Lionel Messi once again stealing the show with a brace that took his goals total for the Catalan giants to 600. Jurgen Klopp’s team more than matched the tournament favourites for long periods of a thrilling encounter at the Camp Nou, but fell behind when Jordi Alba played Luis Suarez in behind the Liverpool back line shortly before the half-hour mark; the former Liverpool forward made no mistake with a superb clipped finish past Alisson. At 1-0, the visitors always looked capable of finding an equaliser, but both Sadio Mane and James Milner missed excellent opportunities to draw Liverpool level – and the Reds were made to pay when Messi stole in to finish into an empty net after Suarez had kneed his effort against the bar with 15 minutes remaining. The Argentine saved his best for last, however, placing an astonishing free-kick in the top left corner to make Liverpool’s second-leg task almost impossible.
Shots / On target
Passes / Accurate
Fouls / Yellow / Red
Barcelona set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation and instantly looked to build with shorter passes from deep. Sergio Busquets dropped in between centre-backs Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet, with Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal offering in central gaps between Liverpool’s first line of pressure.
The visitors’ back line condensed to mark Barcelona’s tight front three of Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, meaning much of the hosts’ play into midfield was through their advancing full-backs in wide areas. They were patient in their build-up, with Coutinho’s movement inside from the left pulling Joe Gomez infield and creating space for Jordi Alba to run in behind. It was from an Alba pass that Suarez stole in between Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk to score Barcelona’s opening goal on 26 minutes.
Despite going ahead, Barcelona’s attacking possession was rare, as Liverpool pressed their short build and dominated the ball through their wider combinations. The visitors forced the ball one way from goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, cutting off the switch. From there, Liverpool’s central midfield marked in between two Barcelona players, thus setting the trap out wide. As the aerial pass travelled out, the likes of Alba and Coutinho on Barcelona’s left now faced constant pressure. The hosts ended up searching desperately for Messi or Suarez with ineffectual forward passes.
This continued into the second half, as Barcelona struggled to play direct passes into their front line. Messi dropped very deep to help orchestrate play and create an extra passing option around the ball, but even he couldn’t link with forward runs from Coutinho and Suarez.
The guile of Busquets in central areas helped Barca survive Liverpool’s dominant spell, with Messi’s move to the right inside channel making use of substitute Nelson Semedo’s overlapping runs from right-back. This also allowed Suarez to play blindside of both Liverpool centre-backs as they faced the ball, with Messi’s through balls gradually having an impact. The Argentine eventually had his say in front of goal, scoring twice to take the tie away from Liverpool; his first was a simple tap-in after Suarez’s effort had crashed back off the bar, his second a superb free-kick. Unlike Liverpool, Barca took their chances on the night.
Without the ball, the hosts formed a 4-4-2 structure, usually in a mid-block. The distance between their back line and central forwards remained relatively compact, however, with Liverpool testing the spaces in behind via direct balls forward. The pace of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah was a constant issue, as long as these passes were hit diagonally across goal; ter Stegen was alert to collect any passes between the centre-backs.
Liverpool’s build proved most effective on their left, where rotations from Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum created space for Andy Robertson to test the Barca back line with deliveries into the penalty area. The home defence generally dealt well with these crosses, however, and the second-half introduction of Semedo at right-back – Sergi Roberto moved forward into midfield, with Arturo Vidal taking Coutinho’s place on the left – added extra security. They then dropped into a much lower defensive block, congesting the space to limit the threat of Liverpool’s low crosses.
Barcelona set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic dropping between the two centre-backs during their build – but Liverpool’s pressure on goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen reduced their ability to build from deep. The full-backs became a pressing trap, with the visitors’ front line blocking off the switch.
Out of possession, Arturo Vidal moved out to the right, with Coutinho dropping from his advanced position on the left in a reserved 4-4-2 mid-block. This led to a larger amount of Liverpool possession in the first half.
Busquets’ position away from the back line eventually helped Barcelona build through Liverpool’s press. Initially Vidal – but later Messi – took advantage of the space behind Andy Robertson, as the visitors committed higher in search of an elusive away goal.
Liverpool set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with Georginio Wijnaldum as the central striker. The early wirthdrawal through injury of Naby Keita saw substitute Jordan Henderson take up a wider position on the right. This moved Mo Salah inside, with Sadio Mane making diagonal runs across the back line. Andy Robertson, an early threat down the left, was more conservative after Keita departed.
The visitors maintained their 4-3-3 shape without the ball, alternating between a mid-block and a more successful higher press. When in a mid-block, the spaces around their narrow back line were targeted by Barcelona’s full-backs – particularly Jordi Alba down the Liverpool right.
In the second half, Joel Matip drove more into midfield from defence. This drew the Barcelona midfield to the ball, creating more space for the Reds’ advanced players to receive between the lines. With Mane dropping in from the left, Robertson was again able to get forward.
Jurgen Klopp set Liverpool up in a 4-3-3 attacking shape, with Georginio Wijnaldum as the central forward in place of Roberto Firmino. Joe Gomez was also introduced at right-back, with James Milner and Naby Keita supporting single pivot Fabinho in central midfield. Keita covered left-back Andy Robertson, who was pushed forward to attack the spaces in behind Arturo Vidal. Sadio Mane then moved inside to create another passing option ahead of his central midfielders, which again created more space for Robertson to move around Barcelona’s block.
Wijnaldum moved away from the centre during these builds to work off Mane’s movements, but the makeshift forward dropped towards the ball while Liverpool built through Virgil van Dijk or Keita from the left, hoping to draw Barca right-back Sergi Roberto inside. Keita was forced to withdraw with injury midway through the half, however, with Milner moving across to the left side of central midfield and Jordan Henderson slotting in on the right. This led to a more conservative approach from Robertson on the left, although Henderson pushed wider on the right, allowing Salah to occupy more central positions around Barcelona’s central defence. One superb pass from Henderson fell perfectly for Mane, who was making a diagonal run from the left – but the in-form forward blasted over when to equalise looked easier.
Liverpool’s pressure continued into the second half, with their pressing trap on Alba leading to a number of high regains on their right. Robertson began to move forward again, as Joel Matip drove out of defence to draw Barcelona’s midfield to the ball. This helped create more space between the lines, with Mane dropping into these enhanced gaps to create even more space for Robertson to overlap.
The threat from both flanks was underlined when Salah cut back for Milner to shoot straight at ter Stegen, but Liverpool couldn’t make the most of their chances and fell to a Messi sucker-punch with quarter of an hour remaining. They subsequently struggled to break through Barcelona’s now lower block, and conceded a third when Messi struck home a wonder free-kick. As a final sign that it wasn’t Liverpool’s night, Rakitic’s superb clearance off the line moments after Barcelona’s third fell to Salah, who hit the post from a seemingly unmissable position.
Liverpool maintained their 4-3-3 structure during periods of defensive play, as their front line locked on to Barcelona’s back three during the build. The hosts’ central midfielders received passes between this first line of pressure, but with Liverpool’s back line so horizontally compact, their central midfield had to mirror this. The result was more space for Barcelona’s higher full-backs, in particular Jordi Alba on the left.
James Milner initially moved out to the right to help cover Alba’s advances, with the visitors still having Fabinho and Keita to cover Ivan Rakitic and Arturo Vidal. This led to an increased spell of Liverpool possession midway through the first half, but as the Reds slowly moved into a mid-block, Barcelona took the lead. A switch of play found Coutinho, who set back for Alba to tease in a delicious early ball for Luis Suarez, who broke in between Liverpool’s static centre-backs.
Liverpool’s strategy to force the play one way, block off the central midfield and then trap the remaining full-back continued, and worked well deep into the second period. Their wider regains not only stopped Barcelona from playing out, but also helped them attack using their key wide men from the first half: Robertson and Henderson.
Messi’s deeper position eventually helped Barcelona secure more possession in Liverpool’s half, as the likes of Roberto, Suarez, Alba and Vidal ran ahead to attack in behind the visitors’ back line. In the end, Messi’s link between midfield and attack – plus two mentally draining goals – secured an intimidating first-leg lead for the hosts. For all Liverpool’s impressive play, both with and without the ball, they left the Camp Nou with nothing.