Yes, Barcelona have done it again - they have blown a three goal first-leg lead in the Champions League and will have to watch the Final from home. Braces from Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum were more than enough for Liverpool to send Barcelona crashing out. Liverpool were never going to give up, but the fact that the Catalans choked after they have been resting for weeks, while Liverpool had to work through a grueling schedule to stay in the hunt for the title with numerous injuries to boot is deeply disturbing.
Even though Barcelona travelled to Anfield with a sizeable advantage, Liverpool’s play at the Camp Nou and last season’s return leg to Roma, left plenty of anxiety. Jürgen Klopp made several lineup changes, some due to injuries to key players, while Ernesto Valverde rolled out the same XI that put Barcelona in the driver’s seat in Catalonia.
The visitors started the match from midfield, but Liverpool came storming out of the gate, immediately causing a couple turnovers and creating a good look in the very first minute, but Jordi Alba cleared the ball out for a corner kick just before Jordan Henderson could fire on goal. Without much trouble Barcelona cleared the following corner.
The hosts continued with the high press, as was widely expected, all three forwards marking Barcelona players deep in the Catalan third. Barcelona were focused on defense, but a big mistake from Alba, who passed the ball back, right to Sadio Mane. Mane found Henderson in space and the captain fired on goal after a failed challenge by Gerard Pique, but was saved by Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The rebound, however, fell right to Origi, who had the easy task of tapping the ball into the empty net.
Liverpool were buoyed by the early goal and Barcelona’s insistence on an extremely direct style of play early in the game allowed very little time off for the Catalan defense as turnovers quickly followed. Barcelona put little effort on trying to control the game though possession play, and what little effort there was, was quickly sniffed out by the home side.
Barcelona finally looked dangerous in the 14th minute, in play that started with a perfect diagonal pass from Arturo Vidal to Philippe Coutinho on the left wing. The Brazilian carried the ball deep into the area before combining with Alba who found Messi in a good spot. The Man of the Match of the 1st leg first timed the ball on goal, but was denied by Alisson. Three minutes later a stunning over the top ball sprung Alba through on goal, but an unselfish pass to Messi allowed Virgil van Dijk enough time to recover and steal the ball away.
Liverpool were pushing, but Barcelona created the next chance as well, as the Catalans started clicking on the counter. In the 18th minute, Messi found Coutinho open on the left side for another shot on goal, but again Alisson made the save. From the following corner kick Barcelona threatened again, but Messi’s shot from the edge whistled just wide.
The blistering pace continued as Liverpool continued their search to get within one while Barcelona looked to put the tie to rest with an away goal. The hosts unleased a flurry of attacks in the 22nd minute, but the Barcelona defenders were always in excellent position to make the necessary play. The very next minute a Sane counter led to an Andrew Robertson shot on goal that had to be parried away by ter Stegen.
Barcelona started enjoying more time in possession after the 25 minute mark, but that certainly didn’t lead to Liverpool being any less dangerous. Time after time the hosts sent numbers forward, both from possession play and through counter-attacks, but ter Stegen was mostly just a spectator. Barcelona’s attacks also didn’t amount to much.
Four minutes were added on due to two Liverpool injuries that required on-field assistance. Both sides looked to create something in the dying minutes of the opening half, with first Messi coming close in 45+2’, but just missing from distance. In the final minute Barcelona threatened again, after a Liverpool corner kick, as Messi brilliantly found Alba with a through ball, but Alisson made a great save to keep the hosts up by one going into the break, but still trailing by two on aggregate.
One of the two Reds needing treatment in the first half didn’t come out of the dressing room after the break, Robertson, and was replaced by Wijnaldum. Liverpool were again dangerous from the opening whistle, creating an excellent chance in the 51st minute after a corner kick. Van Dijk showed tremendous instincts in front of goal to back-heel the ball on target from five yards out, but ter Stegen made an even better save.
Barcelona looked to reply immediately, Messi sending Suarez on goal on the very next play, but the Uruguayan’s low shot was saved by a diving Alisson. Liverpool made Barcelona pay for the missed chances in the 54th minute after another mistake by Alba in possession. Trent Alexander-Arnold stole the ball away from the Spaniard and sent a low cross in for Wijnaldum to run on to and power under ter Stegen.
Two minutes later Wijnaldum struck again. This time the cross came from the other side and the Dutchman rose the highest and gave ter Stegen no chance to make the stop. Liverpool were pounding it on as Barcelona were reeling from the quick-fire double. Now tied at three on aggregate, it was anybody’s game, but all of the momentum was on Liverpool’s side. Valverde reacted immediately, bringing on Nelson Semedo in place of Coutinho, who went largely AWOL after a couple good plays early in the first half.
The substitution brought a bit of calmness into the chaos that the hosts unleashed, but Liverpool were quickly back on the offensive. Slowly Barcelona were recovering though and started showing life. First Messi tried his luck from a free kick from a very similar spot as last week, but hit the wall. Moments later Messi was played through on the right wing and fired on goal, but Alisson made another save.
Valverde made his second personnel change in the 75th minute, taking off Vidal and bringing on Arthur. With only 15 minutes left to play, neither team was willing to risk much. Both sides continued to attack, but they did so responsibly. But while the attackers were responsible, the Barcelona defense was not. A complete meltdown in corner coverage allowed Alexander-Arnold to take the kick quickly to a wide open Origi in front of goal who made no mistake to put Liverpool in the lead.
Immediately Valverde pulled Rakitić and replaced him with Malcom. Time was running out for the Catalans who were on the verge of another epic collapse in the Champions league. Now Liverpool were pinned deep as Barcelona pushed everybody forward. Five minutes were added on to extend Barcelona’s hope of a turnaround they didn’t really deserve. The hosts pulled everybody back and were defending with eleven inside 30-yards. Barcelona were out of idea, Messi was cut off from play and Liverpool taught Barcelona another lesson – one that they failed to learn against Roma last season.
The treble dream is gone and perhaps Valverde with it.