Barcelona defeated Liverpool 3-0 on Wednesday night in the first leg of their Uefa Champions League semi-final to take a major step towards next month’s showpiece. Here’s the main talking points from Camp Nou.
Magical Messi’s momentus mark
What more is there to say? Lionel Messi brought up his 600th Barcelona goal with one of the most exquisite free kicks. Not only did it register a lofty personal mark, but lifted his team to 3-0 on the night and placed one of their feet firmly in the final. Moments before, Messi's 599th goal was altogether more different, a tap-in having collected on his chest Luis Suarez's rebounded effort. Until then, Messi had been relatively quiet, by his incredible standards at least. Then he decided the match, most probably the tie. He scored an eighth free kick of the season; the next best in Europe's top five leagues is four. It took him 683 matches to bring up 600. An absolute joy to witness.
Liverpool’s old boys had contrasting nights
Up against their former club, Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho made rather different impacts. Suarez delighted in his regular role as bête noir, snarling and snapping at Liverpool, at one point barging Andrew Robertson, constantly haranguing the referee. He capped a gnawing display by opening the scoring, then inadvertently supplying the assist for Barcelona's second. Coutinho, meanwhile, left the pitch on the hour mark to a less-than-favourable response from the home crowd. Despite beginning brightly, the Brazilian soon slipped from view, his influence regressing, his passing and pressing sloppy. Signed for last year from Liverpool for £142 million (Dh680.5m), his future at the Catalan club appears in real jeopardy.
Valiant visitors deserved more
A 3-0 defeat leaves Liverpool staring blankly at the exit door. Yet they more than contributed to an utterly engrossing game, and were very unfortunate to leave without an away goal. Sadio Mane should have scored; Mohamed Salah too. Seconds before the Egyptian’s shot cannoned back off the upright, Roberto Firmino’s shot was hacked from the Barcelona line by Ivan Rakitic. Elsewhere, Marc Andre ter Stegen made a fine low save from Salah, while James Milner shot straight at the home goalkeeper when well placed to score. For a large part, Jurgen Klopp’s game plan worked brilliantly. Then Messi stood up, and put the tie almost beyond them. Liverpool were unlucky. They deserved more.
Lightning left-backs leave impressions
Full-back used to be one of the least desirable positions on the pitch. "Who wants to be Gary Neville?" Jamie Carragher once trumpeted famously, albeit a little facetiously. His former club, though, have a genuine game-changer at left-back. As do his former club's semi-final opponents. In Andrew Robertson and Jordi Alba, Liverpool and Barcelona boast two of the finest exponents in that position: both rapid, both relentless, both regular creators of goals. Alba's beautifully contrived assist for Suarez to break the deadlock was his 15th of the season. He leads that statistic in the Champions League, with five. Robertson, meanwhile, gave another all-action display, in a campaign full of them.
However faint, there’s still hope
Attempting to reach successive European Cup finals, Liverpool’s chances look bleak. Three down, with no away goal to take to Merseyside next week. What is more, Barcelona have conceivably the greatest player to have played the game. However, Liverpool will still believe they can cause an upset. Their energy and pace will no doubt concern Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde, especially at what’s sure to be a lively Anfield. They will be better with Firmino back starting. And recent history suggests it’s possible, too. Last year, Barcelona defeated Roma 4-1 at home in the quarter-finals, then lost 3-0 in Italy to crash out of the tournament. Edin Dzeko struck after six minutes to set the tone. If Liverpool do likewise, they have a chance.