A short walk from the Palau Reial metro station through Les Corts involves the negotiation of a concrete realm. Beneath brooding apartment blocks are disused car parks where migrants, on non-match days, play cricket using traffic cones and tennis balls. Further downhill is a grey bowl of a sporting venue which does not look like it can hold nearly 100,000 people. From the outside, only a third of the Nou Camp is visible and you wonder what all of the fuss is about.
Barcelona, though, is one of those cities where much happens on shadowy side streets and alleyways. There are stories beyond the faded twitching curtains and up winding steel stairs. Realities are not always reflected by what happens in the grandest square.
The Nou Camp digs deep into the earth, creating an improbable vast space which can only be appreciated when past its heaving iron gates and into its centre. A football Garden of Eden, a paradise you know is there but is better because it does not give indication of it coming, unless – of course – you already know about the history of the place.
Liverpool as a club knew. It remembered its last visit when Rafael Benitez played Alvaro Arbeloa at left back because he wanted to cut out the diagonal runs of Lionel Messi. Benitez picked him because he was right footed and foremost, a good defender. It worked.
Liverpool in its current form knew less. Jurgen Klopp had never coached a team here. James Milner had come with Manchester City, losing narrowly twice and there was no shame in that. Alisson Becker had played for AS Roma last season, as had Virgil van Dijk with Celtic years before. They conceded ten between them. Though that can happen as well, it felt remarkable that none of those goals were scored by Messi. He played against Roma but not against Celtic when he was injured. It meant this was Van Dijk’s first experience of trying to stop the world’s greatest player in the habitat where he feels most at ease.
Klopp had been enthusiastic about Liverpool’s chances, saying Barcelona had never faced a side like his. Yet that meant Liverpool had also not faced Barcelona, a team which has the magic of Messi.
There was a moment in the first half where he decided it was possible to start an attack from the right back position. He came at speed, flicking past Milner then Andy Robertson, slipping into Liverpool’s half. Only a foul could stop him. Van Dijk was in the middle distance, pre-occupied by another element of the Camp Nou that Liverpool knew all about. That element was Luis Suarez.
His presence meant Messi versus the world’s most expensive defender became one of those contests that symbolised what was happening but in more of an indirect way. Messi instead tried to play on Joel Matip and this meant he was afforded wider freedoms, though Matip tried his best and delivered a fair performance.
Suarez, meanwhile, buzzed around Van Dijk like a dragon fly in the mood to sting anything that came near him. He remains a bloody menace, just as much of a nuisance as he always has been. In the first half alone, he tried to get Milner booked and argued with Alisson. It was the sort of dialogue which suggested he was willing to sort it out afterwards in one of those car parks near to the ground.
Suarez irritated Van Dijk, who remonstrated with the Dutch referee after the Uruguayan chopped into Milner. Again there was finger pointing and dialogue. Van Dijk could not rest, though his concentration slipped. One of the reasons why he was not picked up sooner by a club that meets his standard relates to danger and the way he was not always able to smell it quickly enough. The scouts that watched him play for Groningen thought he switched off. He is much better now but he saw Suarez move to meet Jordi Alba’s cross when it was 0-0. In a flash, Barcelona had a lead.
The first half was enthralling, relentless and exhausting. The second half was unremitting in its pace and ambition. On chances, Liverpool should not have been behind at the break. Theirs was not a performance that merited a 3-0 defeat. Yet Liverpool have meted out similar lashings on opponents who have come at them, like they did at Barcelona so they appreciated the associated risks, surely.
They know about the value of the away goal in the Champions League because this season they have knocked out two teams who failed to score at Anfield despite forcing the clear opportunities. They know how it hinders the chances of progression.
Even with the glory of Messi’s second-half free kick, the sense of relief inside the Nou Camp when Mohamed Salah’s shot clanked against the post with ten minutes remaining was enormous.
The final act of the night was met with curious reaction. Ousmane Dembele should have extended Barcelona’s lead to four and that, it is fair to say, would have been that for this tie. His effort, though, was terrible and it left Messi beating the floor in frustration. Back near the half way line, Sergio Busquets waved his hands as he screamed at his teammate for not being more ruthless. Somewhere in the midst was van Dijk, clenching a fist and he embraced with Alisson. It was the tiniest of victories for Liverpool.
Alisson, of course, knows about what it’s like to lose by three goals in this stadium. Thirteen months ago, he helped Roma through to the semi-finals of the same competition following an unlikely turnaround in Italy. That memory provides a reference for Liverpool but their hope is slim.
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