Liverpool will have to produce a remarkable second-leg comeback if they are to progress to the Champions League final at the expense of Barcelona when the two sides meet at Anfield on Tuesday (3pm ET).
Barca are firmly in the driving seat following their 3-0 victory in the first leg at the Camp Nou last week. Liverpool gave a good account of themselves and had a couple of very good chances to get an away goal, but nevertheless find themselves with a hefty deficit to make up.
The difference maker, as he so often is, was Lionel Messi. Barcelona took a first-half lead when Luis Suarez slid in to expertly convert Jordi Alba’s precise low cross from the left. Then, in the final 15 minutes, Messi took over. If his first goal was somewhat fortuitous, as a rebound from a Suarez effort off the crossbar fell at his feet, the second certainly wasn’t.
Liverpool probably felt relatively confident of avoiding a further concession when Barcelona won a free-kick 30 or so yards out. It was a position from which shot models suggested the average player would only be expected to score 3% of the time, but Messi is far from the average player. He whipped a superb effort over the wall, beyond Alisson’s desperate dive and into the corner. Afterwards, he basked in the devotion of the Catalan crowd.
On the sidelines, Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp could only smile wryly and accept that his side had just been on the receiving end of a piece of magic from the best player in the world. It was a potentially decisive goal, one that converted Liverpool’s task in the second leg from a highly difficult one to a near impossible one. It could even have got worse late on, as Barcelona substitute Ousmane Dembele wasted two excellent opportunities on the counter.
Klopp and his side must now regroup for a return match in which a perfect coalescent of immaculate football and good fortune will be required if they are to make the final for a second consecutive season. Over the entire history of European Cup knockout ties, only 18 teams have recovered from a first-leg deficit of three or more goals to progress, and only two in the semi-finals: Barcelona in 1986 and Panathinaikos in 1971.
Liverpool can, though, point to a couple of precedents. They did, of course, famously come back from a three-goal half-time deficit in the 2005 final against AC Milan to draw 3-3 and then win out on penalties. Barcelona also gave up a three-goal first-leg advantage to draw 4-4 on aggregate and go out on away goals to Roma in last season’s quarter-final.
The bitter experience of that defeat, a year after Barcelona had themselves recovered from a four-goal first-leg deficit to eliminate Paris Saint-Germain, is only likely to further fortify Barcelona against a repeat performance this time around. Ernesto Valverde was heavily criticised for his overly defensive tactics in the second leg of that encounter. He will be keen to make sure that his side maintain a better balance on Tuesday.
Barcelona will most likely look to spoil in the opening exchanges and so bait Liverpool into pushing more men forward. With Messi, Suarez and perhaps even the unquestionably incisive but similarly imprecise Dembele ready to strike on the break as space opens up, they could then be fancied to score the away goal that would all but end the tie as a contest.
With Roberto Firmino back in the starting XI, Liverpool should be a bit more fluid in the final third than they were in the first leg, but that is unlikely to be enough to tip the balance in their favor. On Saturday, a late goal from Divick Origi secured a 3-2 win away at Newcastle that kept their Premier League title hopes alive into the final weekend, but the likelihood is that their European dreams will be ended on Tuesday.
Barcelona have already wrapped up the Spanish league title and are the only undefeated side left in the Champions League. Not only are they the undeniable favorites to progress to the final, they might just do so as victors at Anfield.