The problem with focusing your energies on only Lionel Messi, as Jurgen Klopp rightly identified in his pre-match press conference, is that Barcelona have 10 other players. They are not freaks of nature. Not anomalies in the gene pool. They are, to a man, mere human beings rather than extraterrestrials. But reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.
Messi won this game and perhaps this tie with two second-half goals to leave Liverpool on the brink of Champions League elimination at the semi-final stage, but he only did so after those around him had given him the platform. This is a sometimes-maligned Barcelona but it is still Barcelona. Still a team which, under Ernesto Valverde, has only lost four games in league and European competition over the past two seasons.
Only one of those defeats - that scarcely credible reverse in Rome in last year’s quarter-finals - was at all significant. It is a notable blot on Valverde’s copy book but it is the only one. Jurgen Klopp has very few on his too, but the curious line-up he selected for this defeat may go down as one of them unless Liverpool can turn the deficit around.
Joe Gomez was at right-back, making his first start since breaking his leg in December. Trent Alexander-Arnold was on the substitutes’ bench. The in-form captain, Jordan Henderson, was initially kept in reserve too. Georginio Wijnaldum played as a false nine. All this, in arguably the most significant game of your season to date. At the Camp Nou, no less.
Some of those selections were enforced. Others - particularly those down the left-hand side - felt like a concession to the player who Klopp described as the greatest he has ever personally witnessed. Messi was harried, kicked, pushed, barged and essentially crowded out at every opportunity.
The otherwise excellent Joel Matip was a touch fortunate not to concede an early penalty with his attempt to smother the Argentinian. Matip was lashing at the ball, desperately trying to beat it away, but kicked it up against his hand. Bjorn Kuipers, the match referee, did not notice.
James Milner took particular pleasure in bludgeoning Messi out on the same touchline where he was nutmegged by him five years ago. The ball was out of play after Andrew Roberton’s well-timed tackle. There was no danger of a quick restart to initiate a counter. But the temptation to leave one in was too great. Liverpool’s plan out of possession could therefore be boiled down to two words: suffocate Messi.
Perhaps then, in one way, this was a match-up between an individual and a collective after all, but that interpretation falls somewhat flat when the 10 other players in this Barcelona team step in for their leader, denying you the space in which to play and forcing the opening themselves.
There was the defence, led by the impressive Clement Lenglet and evergreen Gerard Pique, throwing their bodies down to block another attempt at goal. There was the midfield made up exclusively over over-30s, not only keeping up with the frantic pace but dictating it. There was Marc-Andre ter Stegen, whose interventions at the start of the second half were as crucial as any goal.
And then there was Jordi Alba’s cross and Luis Suarez’s finish, the two actions which produced Barcelona’s first of the night, the one which killed Liverpool’s early momentum. The execution of both was exquisite, the timing more so, exploiting Virgil van Dijk’s uncharacteristic lapse in concentration to fillet Klopp’s defence. Messi played no part. He had not needed too.
Before that, Liverpool had their chances. Mohamed Salah was embarking on long, intricate dribbles which could be described as Messi-esque. Sadio Mané was finding ample space in behind Sergi Roberto, missing that final touch to make an opportunity count. But after Alba and Suarez combined, that initial energy and spark never returned.
From there on, a bruised but unbowed Messi took the game away from Liverpool. It was the 75th minute when he was ready, inside the penalty area, to react after Suarez’s effort had struck the crossbar and dribble over the goal-line. Six minutes later, he was curling a spectacular free-kick from 25-yards out out of Alisson’s reach and into the top left-hand corner.
He is still this side’s genius, their match-winner, and the player who any side visiting at the Camp Nou must make sure to minimise, as the late show which may decide this semi-final demonstrated. But reduce Barcelona to Messi and Messi alone at your peril.
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