By Padraig O’Callaghan – @AGameOfTwoHalfz
Liverpool travel to Spain to battle against Catalan giants FC Barcelona for a coveted spot in the 2019 Champions League final – a second final in as many seasons since returning to the competition after a five-year absence shows how Liverpool are tailor made for Europe’s biggest club competition.
Barcelona wrapped up the La Liga titleat the weekend. A much-changed side needed a helping hand from Lionel Messi in a 1-0 victory over Levante to secure their eighth title in 13 years.
Jurgen Klopp should be confident from what he seen when he analysed the match with his team. Barcelona were unimpressive until their Argentinian talisman entered the field. Slow in midfield and suspect in defence should make the prospect of the Reds’ getting an extremely positive result much more plausible.
Liverpool looked much more impressive against Huddersfield, scoring five without reply. Naby Keita registered his third goal in five games while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané scored twice to take them to 21 and 20 league goals for the season respectively.
The Reds travel to the Nou Camp with their longest winning streak in Jurgen Klopp’s tenure at Anfield, meaning confidence will be flying high prior to quite a stern test against one of Europe’s elite clubs.
Barcelona’s journey to the semi-final
Barcelona progressed through to the knockout stages by topping a difficult group consisting of Inter, PSV and fellow Champions League semi-finalists Tottenham Hotspur. They finished unbeaten with 14 points, winning four and drawing two.
The two matches against PSV saw them win 4-0 at home and 2-1 away, Lionel Messi scored four in two matches which you would expect Barcelona to win. Their home win was quite nervy before they scored three in 13 minutes to show how far superior they were.
Barcelona were without Messi in their home tie against Inter Milan but came through with a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from forgotten man Rafinha and left back Jordi Alba, The Catalans registered 22 shots on goal and completed 90% of 762 passes showcasing their art at keeping possession.
Away they could only settle for a draw. Malcom seemingly scored the winner in the 83rd minute to give a Barcelona side, who had 26 shots on goal, a deserved lead before much mangled forward Icardi levelled with Inter’s only shot on target to share the spoils.
Tottenham were on the end of a 4-2 trouncing at Wembley. Lionel Messi scored his 23rd and 24th goal against English opposition to give Barcelona a comfortable victory. Ex-Red Philippe Coutinho scored and assisted in the game showing his ability against English sides is still there. Harry Kane and Eric Lamela twice cut the deficit in half before Messi made sure of the three points with a late goal.
The final match day of Group B saw an already progressed Barcelona play a Spurs teams needing to progress with a minor miracle, Lucas Moura provided that miracle scoring late to cancel out an early goal from Ousmane Dembele. Barcelona were much changed due to their progression, so the match shouldn’t be judged when comparing how they have fared against English opposition.
The knockout stages saw them face both Lyon and Manchester United, both games saw Barcelona largely unchallenged. They overcame Lyon by an aggregate score of 5-1, all goals were scored in the first leg at the Nou Camp allowing Valverde to rest players in the second leg.
The first leg against Manchester United was quite surprising, a very poor Manchester United side only lost by a single goal and could have even scored themselves. They managed to keep Sergio Busquets quiet which starved the front line of Barcelona of the ball.
The second leg saw United fly out the traps and they created two excellent chances in the first five minutes. Messi calmed the nerves though with two goals in the first half before a Coutinho special set up the semi-final tie against Liverpool.
Roberto Firmino faces a late fitness test after sitting out of the victory over Huddersfield with a small muscle tear. There were concerns on social media that the Brazilian would miss the remainder of the season but Jurgen Klopp said he had a chance of playing Wednesday in his post-match interview.
Other than that, the German should have a full squad to chooses from apart from Adam Lallana who might have played his last game for the club, the English midfielder is far too injury prone to be relied upon and should be shipped off in the summer.
Alisson Becker will start in goal as usual, this game will probably be the toughest of his Liverpool career coming up against the likes of Messi, Suarez and Dembele. The Brazilian will need to be very alert throughout the 90.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has looked tired in recent weeks, not in a physical sense but mentally. He still can run up and down the pitch with ease but when defending 1v1 he seems to be getting beaten far more than he was earlier in the season.
Jurgen Klopp will have a tough decision to make whether or not to play Joe Gomez or keep faith in Trent against one of the skill full Dembele. In the middle of defence Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip will start hoping to keep Barcelona’s attack at bay.
The midfield selection will be a huge reason if Liverpool are able to get a result, if Barcelona perform the way they have done in recent weeks the right midfield should see Liverpool score a handful of away goals to put them in a strong position. The wrong one would make the first leg quite hard and leave the tie in the balance heading into the second leg.
If Firmino does miss the game through injury, Jurgen Klopp should utilise a 4-4-2 diamond formation, Fabinho holding, Henderson and Gini in the two and Naby Keita at the point, leaving Salah and Mane up front. If Firmino is fit, then he will replace Keita.
Barcelona’s star players will return after being rested against Levante. Marc-Andre ter Stegen will start in goal – the German is currently the best goalkeeper in the world in my opinion. His shot stopping is second to none and his distribution is only bettered by Man City’s Ederson.
The Catalans’ back four is quite an offensive one, full backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto will venture into the space left by the wide forwards while Gerard Pique does his fair share of stepping into midfield. French defender Clement Lenglet is the only defender full committed to his job and rarely joins the attack.
Sergio Busquets and Arthur are dead certs to start in midfield, so Ernesto Valverde will need to decide which player completes the midfield. Ivan Rakitic is technically gifted and is excellent on the ball which could beat Liverpool’s press, the Croatian however, is slow which would see Liverpool be very dangerous on the counter.
Arturo Vidal would be a different option – his physicality and fitness would see him keep up with Liverpool’s midfield but is not as gifted on the ball which could see him dispossessed easily if pressure is applied.
Barcelona’s attacking ranks features two ex-Liverpool players in Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez.The Uruguayan may be the only one of the duo to start in attack alongside Messi, as mentioned before Dembele ability on the ball will cause Liverpool’s defence much more trouble than the Brazilian.
This two-legged affair will be Liverpool’s biggest and most important test of the season, win and they have a huge chance of claiming the European cup for the sixth time in their history, lose and it’s likely despite a record-breaking season that we will finish the season empty-handed.
Both teams possess some of the finest players in world football and arguably the top two players, Lionel Messi and newly crowned PFA Player of the Year Virgil van Dijk.
The contest between the duo is once of the most anticipated in recent seasons. Messi has completed the most take-ons and has dribbled past the most players in La Liga this season, while van Dijk hasn’t been dribbled past for 38 games – an unstoppable force versus an immovable object, if you will.
While you can’t stop Messi on the ball you can most certainly stifle his influence on the game, tightly marking Sergio Busquets should see the Argentine drop deep to the centre of the pitch where he would be least effective. Overpowering the midfield would be required to achieve this and go a long way in deciding the tie.
Liverpool are the only English team to win at the Nou Camp and I genuinely believe we could put the tie beyond Barcelona ‘IF’ we play the right midfield. The famed Brexit midfield in European away games hasn’t worked this season and would be catastrophic at the Nou Camp.
Fabinho has to start with Gini and Henderson in front. Keita’s omission would be understandable but in no way, shape or form should James Milner start. If Jurgen Klopp does pick the right midfield I think Liverpool will run out winners on the night. Pick the wrong midfield and I think we will be heading back to Anfield with a 2-1 loss.
Right midfield final score: Barcelona 1 (Messi) – Liverpool 3 (Salahx2, Mané)
Wrong midfield final score: Barcelona 2 (Messi, Dembele) – Liverpool 1 (Mané)