FC Barcelona will need to be at their very best to get past Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League semifinal as it pits the two favorites to win the competition outright.
Barça come into the match having already faced English opposition. The Catalans dispatched Manchester United in the quarterfinals with relative ease, but they will have a much harder time matching up with Liverpool.
The Reds not only are a more talented, more cohesive, and more consistent unit, but they are arguably, a much tougher stylistic fit for Barça.
Liverpool’s frenetic pressing and pace could prove a huge matchup problem for the Catalans if they are not at their absolute sharpest while moving the ball from defense to midfield.
Fitness and form
Both teams come into the match in absolute top form. Barça are coming off a routine win that has made them La Liga champions. While perhaps that could be cause for concern of a hangover, there is a huge morale boost in it as well.
Meanwhile, Liverpool are neck-and-neck with Manchester City in the Premier League and dismantled Huddersfield on Friday.
Liverpool have an extra day’s rest and have played one match less since the previous round of Champions League fixtures, although Ernesto Valverde has rotated more than usual to try to keep his team fresh over that time period.
Having recovered Thomas Vermaelen from injury, Barcelona’s only miss is Rafinha. That has been the case for a while, so it won’t change Valverde’s plans.
Roberto Firmino, Fabinho, and less crucially, Adam Lallana have been listed as injury doubts for the Reds. But I imagine they will all play if they have to, particularly the first two.
Barcelona are unbeaten in 22 matches and won 13 of the last 15. Liverpool are unbeaten in 19 matches, and won the last 10 in a row. It’s a true clash of the titans.
Most of Barcelona’s starting XI basically picks itself, and the three players who miss out from the starting lineup almost always make it onto the pitch as substitutes anyway.
Marc-André ter Stegen, Jordi Alba, Gerard Piqué, Clément Lenglet, Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suárez seem like locks to start, with a choice between two in every other place in the lineup.
First, should it be Nélson Semedo or Sergi Roberto who starts at right-back? Semedo has the pace to help Barça match up with Liverpool better, but Roberto has more creativity and can help control games with his passing.
Roberto or Semedo vs Liverpool?— BarcaBlaugranes (@BlaugranesBarca) April 28, 2019
Then, should we see Arturo Vidal or Arthur in midfield? Arthur helps control the flow of the game with his metronomic passing but Vidal offers an X factor and a player that can singlehandedly kill counters with his energy and tackling.
Arthur or Vidal vs Liverpool?— BarcaBlaugranes (@BlaugranesBarca) April 28, 2019
And finally, the question worth hundreds of millions: Philippe Coutinho or Ousmane Dembélé? Coutinho is picking up some form after struggling through a really rough patch and is keen on proving to his former team he’s made the right choice in leaving. Meanwhile, Dembélé should finally be back to full sharpness after his injury layoff.
Coutinho’s strength is he’s more careful with the ball, being by his nature an attacking midfielder, and can help play tight combinations. Dembélé has that pace that Barcelona need to match up with Liverpool better. He can stretch defenses. He’s also a risk taker, sometimes he makes what seems like a silly mistake but other times he can make things happen out of nothing. Definitely another X factor.
Coutinho or Dembélé vs Liverpool?— BarcaBlaugranes (@BlaugranesBarca) April 28, 2019
There is perhaps one additional possibility for Valverde: playing with an extra midfielder. He’s shown he is willing to do it to stop other teams that pose unique challenges, like Real Betis. In that case, perhaps we will see Vidal and Arthur together, while sacrificing a forward. Another option is to play both Semedo and Roberto together.
For Liverpool, it’s the same, most of the team picks itself. Alisson is the #1 keeper, while Andy Robertson is indisputable at left-back. Virgil van Dijk is perhaps their best player, and his partner is likely to be Joel Matip.
At right-back we can expect Trent Alexander-Arnold, unless Klopp wants to be more conservative and play Joe Gomez there. The three in midfield could be Naby Keïta, Fabinho, and Jordan Henderson. Georginio Wijnaldum is an option in midfield, particularly if Fabinho is not 100%, or he could replace Keïta. James Milner is another player that could play a role.
The front three are sure to be Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino (if fit), and Sadio Mané.
Firmino was rested in Liverpool’s 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield with a muscular problem, but it’s almost sure he’ll play against Barcelona.
Barcelona’s midfield, especially with Arthur, will be a bit more technical than Liverpool’s. With Messi dropping in from the forward line, Barça will seek to dictate the tempo of the match. However, Liverpool are a team that retains possession really well. They are not a counterattacking team, primarily. Even in their games against Manchester City this season, Liverpool won the possession battle in one of the two games. Both times, it was close. They do, of course, clearly rely on quick transitions and the speed of their forward line. But they are not a team that relinquishes possession, sits deep, and hopes to break - not even against the likes of City.
ESPN reports that Valverde is looking at those City games with a close eye. One was a 2-1 win for City, and the other was a 0-0 draw that could have ended in another victory for Pep Guardiola’s men if not for a penalty miss from Riyad Mahrez.
Lenglet has spoken about watching video obsessively, and reports say that Valverde and his staff are scouting Liverpool with great intensity.
Despite the fact City got the best of Liverpool over the two games, they were extremely close affairs and they needed a good deal of good fortune to secure the results.
For Barcelona it matters a lot how they start both halves, when Liverpool press the strongest. They will want to be patient and avoid making mistakes when playing from the back.
This is not the Liverpool of last season, they are a bit more considered and a bit more measured. They are more comfortable building play through possession and taking less risks in attack. In short, they are more mature and more patient.
Both teams use their fullbacks to create chances, which means there is an element of risk on both flanks for both teams. You can imagine Robertson or Alexander-Arnold notching an assist as much as you can imagine the space they leave behind being exploited by Barcelona. Or Alba or Roberto getting an assist. Or Salah and Mané motoring forward as Barça’s fullbacks are caught upfield.
Other players will have to help out. For example, Liverpool’s two wingers may have to go back to protect the flanks, or they will use one of their midfielders on either side to help protect the flank - particularly, they need to defend Alba’s flank.
For Barcelona, Messi will probably not offer a lot of defensive support so the right-sided midfielder (Rakitić probably) will have to compensate and act as both an auxiliary winger and an auxiliary fullback when needed.
One key battle is Van Dijk vs, Messi. By consensus, we are talking about the best defensive player in the world against the best attacker in the world. We could go all day talking about their virtues, but perhaps we should also recognize that both will depend heavily on their supporting casts to help them make the maximum impact.
I’d like to highlight another battle, though, and that’s Firmino vs. Busquets. Firmino is one of the best false-nines that exist, and he’s great at coming back to close down the opposition’s deepest midfielder. He can also help Liverpool in their midfield battle. Busquets was a little out of sorts in the first leg against United but he was back to his best in the return. Let’s see what kind of form he’s in.
Speaking of United, the blueprint for Barcelona’s success vs. Liverpool may be in that tie. Barça scored three at home and kept it extremely tight in the return leg, keeping the ball and not allowing the Red Devils many chances at all. On the other hand, Liverpool will see the opening of the second leg, in which United pressed and harassed Barça, as a blueprint. They’ll be looking to exploit the high line.
ESPN says that their sources have informed them that Valverde is willing to hit the ball long if necessary. This strategy has mixed success because Barcelona is relatively small among the forward and central midfield lines. One thing I wonder is if they will try to play long passes from goal kicks. If so, one thing to keep in mind is you can’t be offside from a goal kick. Placing your forwards very, very high can stretch the defense a bit. Hitting it long to the middle of the park - but not longer - can be riskier as Liverpool can easily turn that into attack.
Set-pieces will be important, and Liverpool are quite good at them. But Barcelona have the best free kick taker in the world and two important threats in the air - Piqué and Lenglet - so it cuts both ways.