Lionel Messi is a true force of nature. No matter how many precautions you take and how much you prepare, he is inevitable.
Liverpool tried to stop Messi and almost pulled it off. For large parts of Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal first leg, the forward was surrounded by four or five players at a time, crowded into the tightest space, forced to answer the toughest questions.
But the resistance couldn’t last 90 minutes. The inevitable happened. Barcelona kept feeding Messi the ball and he eventually did what he usually does. He scored from close range for Barcelona’s second of the match and then rifled his 600th club goal with a beautiful free-kick.
And just like that, Liverpool’s gutsy performance lost all meaning. Now at a significant 3-0 disadvantage, the Reds have little hope of advancing to a second straight final.
It should’ve been different. Liverpool put Barcelona in real distress in the second half, as they took over midfield and forced manager Ernesto Valverde to switch from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. Imagine that: Barcelona reacting rather than setting the tone. The hosts were on the back foot for the majority of those last 45 minutes.
If only Liverpool could score.
“I don’t know if we can play much better, to be honest,” manager Jurgen Klopp said afterward.
All the hallmarks of Liverpool’s press were on display at the Camp Nou. Valverde expected them to play with rhythm, pace, and anger, and so they did, especially in that second half. The visitors used the long ball to put Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane in one-on-one situations, which gave Liverpool an even greater advantage. Jordi Alba struggled to contain Salah on the run and Mane moved too quickly to mark.
In the ultimate sign of respect, Barcelona began defending with six at the back. The wide midfielders – by this point, Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal – collapsed and the full-backs tucked in.
But one slip in concentration allowed Messi back into the game. Instead of playing out from the back, as they had done nearly the entire match, Liverpool lost possession after a wild punt forward. Seconds after that broken play, the Argentine finally found the breathing room he worked so hard to get. With five yards on either side of him, Messi went on a run and eventually bundled home the game’s second goal.
Messi in any kind of space is the game’s equivalent of a death sentence. Liverpool learned that the hard way.
“That’s football,” Klopp said.
It was utterly demoralizing for a Liverpool side that did nearly everything right. They did more Barcelona things than Barcelona themselves, out-passing the hosts 142 to 55 in the final third. There was no issue with their effort or plan; there was just no reply for the best to ever play.
Some of Messi’s teammates paled in comparison . Vidal, a surprise starter on such a big occasion, gave away more fouls than anyone else, and Philippe Coutinho misplaced enough passes to earn jeers from the restless crowd and an early substitution.
Barcelona just looked to their North Star. The ball was at Messi’s feet at the earliest convenience. And he moved everywhere, making touches inside Barcelona’s back half and well inside the opponent’s area. Liverpool had no way of man-marking the shape-shifting 31-year-old, and even if they tried, they would’ve lost a crucial man in the midfield battle.
So they defended by committee. They kept Messi at bay until they couldn’t. And then he took over, because it’s in his nature.