Lionel Messi and Manchester City – two forces threatening to end Liverpool's trophy pursuit

Liverpool had a brilliant season and tested Barcelona on Wednesday, yet Jurgen Klopp could be the new 'Eternal Second'

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Superficially, it may appear one of the sillier comments made this season.

“I thought we done relatively well against him,” Liverpool’s left-back Andy Robertson said. "Him" being Lionel Messi, scorer of two goals to all but eliminate Liverpool from the Uefa Champions League.

And yet perhaps the difficulties of halting Messi were illustrated by his double. An open goal was a by-product of Liverpool’s difficulties against Luis Suarez, who hit the bar to give Barcelona’s captain an open goal. A free kick was simply unstoppable.

After 70 minutes, Messi had attempted fewer shots than James Milner, with fewer on target. Over the match as a whole, he misplaced more than half his passes. By many objective criteria, Liverpool did well.

They still suffered a belated first defeat at Camp Nou. Messi's capacity to distort scorelines, to irrevocably alter games, to determine the destination of trophies felt proved again.

Barcelona against Liverpool felt a final masquerading as a semi-final; excellent as Ajax had been against Tottenham Hotspur 24 hours earlier, it was hard to escape the sensation that the two strongest sides remaining are in the same half of the draw. Two contrasting Messi goals in eight minutes put Barcelona 3-0 up and him on a path to his fifth Champions League.

Liverpool sounded defiant – “we all have to believe,” Virgil van Dijk said, while Robertson invoked the prospect of a “special” night at Anfield – but the probability is that the tie is over.

Liverpool famously came back from 3-0 down against AC Milan in Istanbul and Barcelona gave up a three-goal lead last season, but Roma had emerged from Camp Nou with an away goal.

No one has overcome this kind of deficit in a Champions League semi-final and while Liverpool scored five times in 35 minutes at this stage last season at Anfield, that, too, felt an astonishing anomaly.

Which, in his own way, Messi already is.

When his free kick flew past a powerless Alisson, it took him to 600 Barcelona goals. There are measures of how extraordinary that is; one is to say that between them, Liverpool and Manchester United's record scorers, Ian Rush and Wayne Rooney, got 599 for England's two most successful clubs.

Mohamed Salah was rightly lauded for reaching 40 goals last season, but Messi has done so in 10 consecutive campaigns. The year before that he got a mere 38.

Liverpool felt like mere mortals in an unfair contest.

Jurgen Klopp’s capacity to take his players to new levels may have been obscured by the scoreline but Robertson again looked a candidate for the title of the world’s best left-back, Joel Matip conjured vital interventions, Jordan Henderson supplied a pass that brought back memories of Steven Gerrard to supply a chance for the threatening Sadio Mane and Milner looked typically undaunted by the occasion.

Soccer Football - Champions League Semi Final First Leg - FC Barcelona v Liverpool - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - May 1, 2019  Barcelona's Marc-Andre ter Stegen after saving a shot from Liverpool's James Milner                Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

They pressed Barcelona high, posed them problems and had more of the possession. Ernesto Valverde helped alter the tie, switching to a more pragmatic 4-4-2 and removing Philippe Coutinho.

It all suggests the Brazilian will be confined to a bit-part role on his Anfield return, Valverde looking to shore up his side with two narrow banks of four and leaving Suarez and Messi to pursue an away goal on the break.

It would finish Liverpool off. With Saturday’s visit to Newcastle United preceding Manchester City’s Monday match with Leicester City, two valiant efforts could end in successive days. Liverpool could potentially post 97 points, the third highest total in English top-flight history.

They have reached three European semi-finals in four seasons, something they have only done twice before in their history. Yet it would provoke a debate about their status.

They are worthy overachievers in one respect, a side shorn of silverware in another. Klopp, who has lost his last six finals, may be borrowing a nickname from Raymond Poulidor, the perennial nearly man of the Tour de France, and “the Eternal Second".

His Liverpool side may be destined to be denied by the most relentless points-gathering machine in Premier League history and a player Klopp feels could be the greatest ever. And Barcelona, Messi que un club, are on course to take Real Madrid’s European crown at Atletico Madrid’s ground next month.

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