Camp Nou sets the scene for a mouthwatering battle between two European giants, FC Barcelona and Liverpool.
Coming off the back of a recent LaLiga title conquest, Ernesto Valverde’s men head into this decisive duel with the utmost confidence. But the same can be said about their opponents who have touched down in the Catalan capital after a 5-0 thrashing over Huddersfield with both Mo Salah and Sadio Mane picking up braces. Safe to say, their strikers are in devastating form. Yet flipping the coin, Barcelona’s front men have also been nothing short of spectacular especially Lionel Messi who has been on a rampage in recent matches: scoring two to dump Manchester United out of the Champions League, then later netting the league title goal to grant his side their 26th LaLiga trophy. He’ll step onto the pitch with 45 goals and 22 assists under his belt and Jurgen Klopp and Co. are well aware of the threat the Argentine brings to the table.
It’s a no brainer that Liverpool are a powerhouse in Europe, with one of the most dangerous attacking frontline; but, they are not flawless and Barça must expose their weaknesses. Taking a look back at their season, the English side have shown signs of delicacy with transitions. Klopp likes to play a narrow front three as the full-backs in Liverpool’s system provide an attacking width, and the numbers of Andrew Robertson (11 assists) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (10) clearly speak of their attacking nature. However, with such high full -backs, the team are quickly exposed in transitions, leaving space for their opponents to take the ball and run. And that is exactly where Barcelona’s speedy Frenchman Ousmane Dembele comes into play. The 21-year-old’s quick pace is the perfect asset to exploit the area and hit Liverpool on transitions. Thus, more of an incentive for Valverde to give Dembele the nod over Philippe Coutinho.
Man-marking or building a cage around Messi?
The question that keeps coaches awake at night: ‘How can we stop Lionel Messi?’ Many have tried, but failed. Some go for the man-to-man marking while others build a cage around the Argentine, yet the little man still manages to find a way to either create a goal or score himself. But that’s just Messi things.
Messi was man-marked in the second leg against Manchester United and things didn’t go as expected for the Red Devils. The playmaker had seven shots on target, netting two goals. It just goes to show a one-man marking system does not quite function with the Barcelona superstar.
The second option is building a cage around Messi with 2-3 players surrounding the little genius whenever he is in possession. However, in Klopp’s pre-match press conference, the German coach acknowledged that sacrificing two or three players to mark a single man will grant space for the rest of the footballers on the pitch.
Figuring out what to do with Messi and how to handle him is without a doubt one of the trickiest situations for Liverpool ahead of this tie.
Barcelona’s wide overload
Another key for the Catalans will be to take advantage of their wide overload. When Barça build from the back, Sergio Busquets typically drops deep and creates a back line of three, which then allows the full-backs to push up. When Busquets gets in that deeper position, the full-backs begin to play as wing-backs. That shift in position then activates potential 2v2 situations in attack, as Messi or Suarez pull in the central defenders towards them, creating space for players like Sergi Roberto or Jordi Alba to overlap and make the run.
On the other side of the field, Liverpool will look to expose Barcelona’s high defensive line. The Blaugrana’s back line occasionally fail to play the offside trap, leaving strikers ready to pounce when given the chance. We saw this in the second leg against Manchester United. Gerard Pique and Co. pushed up very high and did not execute the offside trap correctly, which then gave Marcus Rashford the chance to breakthrough. Luckily, Ter Stegen read the situation and did the work of a sweeper to deny the youngster. However, with the likes of Mane and Salah, who are perfectionists at making well-timed runs behind high lines, and who have studied the tapes to work out the type of damage they can do, Barça’s defense will need to be alert at all times.
Nonetheless, it will be a tale of mini battles. Valverde vs Klopp, Messi vs Van Dijk and Pique vs Salah just to name a few. But at the very end of it, the team that plays the better football will take the crown, and let’s just hope that team is Barcelona