Danger is lurking for Lionel Messi‘s Barcelona. And its name is Liverpool. The front page of Tuesday’s edition of Mundo Deportivo, which is one of Catalonia’s two daily sports newspapers, runs with an alarming headline, “Code Red”, alongside a picture of Liverpool’s coach Jurgen Klopp instructing Mo Salah about his lines of battle.
Mundo Deportivo lays out Liverpool’s numerous strengths: Klopp’s charisma; the class of Salah and Roberto Firmino up front; Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk’s impressive form; Liverpool’s “asphyxiating” high-press; their ability to generate danger without the ball and to effectively execute their strategy. It all makes up for a stern challenge.
“Liverpool are the worst rival Barca could face because of their physical style of football, which is formidable. It’s like encountering a group of wild beasts, something that Barca will have trouble trying to tame,” says Ramon Besa, a journalist with El Pais.
Barcelona’s encounter with Liverpool in this year’s UEFA Champions League semi-final, which begins with a first-leg tie at the Camp Nou stadium tomorrow, is a different animal to last year’s final when Liverpool met a Real Madrid side which fancied themselves against a “mentally weak” Liverpool. The Reds re-armed astutely off-season, bringing in the confident goalkeeper Alisson from AS Roma—who knocked Barcelona out in last year’s quarter-final—as well as Naby Keita, Fabinho and Xherdan Shaqiri.
“Real Madrid won the Champions League final last season because Liverpool had no experience, no pragmatism, no defence,” says Besa. “Who could forget Loris Karius? Today Liverpool have a goalkeeper that Messi has not scored against and an exceptional central defender in Van Dijk, so the conditions are very different. Liverpool have learnt from the past.”
The Spanish press is hailing Klopp for the reconstruction job he has carried out at Liverpool since taking over in 2015. They see him as a positive, contagious presence at Anfield and in the spirt of Bill Shankly—the club’s iconic manager from 1959-1974, who famously believed that football is more than a matter of life and death.
“The most important player that Liverpool have is its trainer,” says Miguel Rico, a journalist with Mundo Deportivo. “Klopp, who came to Liverpool after a couple of years battling with Pep Guardiola in the Bundesliga—one at Dortmund and the other at Bayern—always has teams which are very intense, very competitive. At Liverpool, he has players who can play very directly, who are quick on the counter attack, who oblige the opposition to concentrate for every second.
“Klopp’s idea will be to score at least one goal in Barcelona, and to play counter-attacking football—to put Barcelona on the back foot. He’ll know that when Barcelona attacks it coughs up 30 or 40 metres behind its central defenders. This is the zone where they can hurt Barcelona. The three players he has up front are very good—Salah, Firmino and Mane. They’re players with great mobility. They know how to link up and play as a collective, and they cause danger every time they get on the ball.”
The goal-scoring prowess of Salah—who was chosen by Time magazine as a poster boy for its annual “100 most influential people in the world” list—has dipped from last season’s phenomenal rate, but he is still the English Premier League’s leading goal scorer and Liverpool’s greatest threat going forward.
“Liverpool have many good players,” says Ramiro Martin, Barcelona-based author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol. “Virgil van Dijk is the rock of its defence. Along with Gerard Pique, they are probably the two best central defenders in the world at the moment. I think that above all, though, that Mohamed Salah is their best player. He’s the team’s reference point, the star. Liverpool will not win if they do not see the best version of the Egyptian over the two games.”
Van Dijk, who has just won the prestigious Professional Footballers’ Association player of the year award, has been in imperious form this season. It will be fascinating to see how his backline—which has only lost once and conceded 20 goals in 36 games in the English Premier League this season—can patrol Messi.
The Argentina No. 10, who is on track again to finish as the tournament’s leading goal scorer for the sixth time, was decisive in the last two knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. He took Barca by the scruff of the neck when the tie was in the balance against Lyon, scoring twice and providing two assists, and, of course, made a fool out of Manchester United‘s defence at the Camp Nou in the quarterfinal.
“It will be difficult for Van Dijk to mark Messi because he will have to keep an eye on Luis Suarez,” says Inaki Lorda, a journalist with Barcelona-based Panenka Magazine. “Suarez makes space for Messi. Take, for example, the first goal against Manchester United at the Camp Nou—Suarez made a run that drew United’s two central defenders, providing enough space for Messi to run into.
“But Van Dijk is one of the best central defenders in the world. I remember the international France played against the Netherlands last September, and Van Dijk absolutely ate Kylian Mbappe. If he can do this with Mbappe—a player who is so talented, so fast, who’s 19—he could be able to do something similar with Messi. We’ll have to see.”
Lorda identifies Liverpool’s workmanlike midfield as a weakness, but neither arguably is Barcelona’s midfield a strength—Barca are no longer able to strangle teams the way they used to when their midfield was marshalled by Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta several years ago.
“Barcelona have not been able to ‘close out’ matches,” says Martin. “They have been unable to control them when a game is there for the taking. Ernesto Valverde’s team does not control games the way Barca used to do, for example, under Guardiola. Valverde has been able to reinforce other areas: it now has a great defence, and a great attack, just the opposite of what used to characterise Barca in those years under Guardiola, which was to control the game in the middle of the field.”
Liverpool have a lustre which is admired by Barcelona’s fans and their press. The English club’s history—in which they have won five European Cups, the same number as Barcelona have in their trophy cabinet—counts for something.
“People here have a lot of respect for Liverpool—a respect, for example, that Manchester City doesn’t have because it doesn’t have the same tradition, nor Spurs, nor Arsenal,” says Lorda. “Liverpool are considered one of the grand clubs in Europe.
“Liverpool are considered more of a team which is competitive in Europe, more than in the English Premier League. It hasn’t won an English league title in 29 years whereas they won a Champions League with Rafa Benitez, competed in another final in 2007, and it was close to winning a Europa League in Klopp’s first season.”
Lorda identifies the fact the return leg is at Anfield as a key factor. It gives Liverpool an edge. “Anfield can be frightening for players,” says Lorda. “It’s one of the most intimidating stadiums in Europe. The fans there drive on their team. Liverpool will feel confident returning to Anfield. Barcelona will have a bit of fear that the return leg is not at the Camp Nou so it won’t be able to mount a comeback if necessary like it did say against Paris Saint-Germain two years ago.
“But this too is a far more serious Barcelona team than last year. If Barcelona take a one-or a two-goal lead into the second leg it will be very difficult to overturn that margin because Valverde’s team knows how to ‘suffer’, and it has the recent memory of what happened in Rome to steel the mind. Last year’s quarter-final defeat is very much in their heads. It’s very noticeable.”
As to who will progress to the final, Besa can’t predict a winner from the two sides: “I do not know who will win because for the first time in a long time I think the tie is 50-50. The two teams are evenly balanced.”
Writing in his column in Mundo Deportivo, Charly Rexach, who scored for Barcelona in a UEFA Cup game at Anfield in 1976, believes “Liverpool are strong but Barca are better.” His colleague at the newspaper, Rico, reckons one man could prove the difference between two well-matched teams—Barcelona’s captain, Messi.
“Liverpool are the most difficult rival Barcelona could face in the semi-final,” says Rico. “I don’t know who will win—it’s 50-50—but any team that has Messi has to be favourite. He’s the most dangerous thing for Liverpool.
“Messi is more than a tactic. A team that has Messi in its ranks can always win any game. His team can play badly, his teammates’ service can be really bad, the movement poor, but Messi can still score from nothing. Whatever individual action his marker takes, Messi can still score. Barcelona’s greatest weapon is Messi.”