Champions League: Lionel Messi elevates Barcelona with typical masterclass as Liverpool struggle in unfamiliar system

Liverpool started off like the Red Baron ratta-tat-ing away with Barcelona in an aerial dogfight. But the street-smart Barcelona quickly grew wise to Liverpool’s defensive patterns.

Srijandeep Das May 02, 2019 13:23:26 IST
Champions League: Lionel Messi elevates Barcelona with typical masterclass as Liverpool struggle in unfamiliar system
  • Liverpool’s former imp, Luis Suarez, slid in to score the opener, while Lionel Messi was present and correct, first, with a close-range tap-in, secondly with a free kick off an Apollonian excellence.

  • Liverpool started off like the Red Baron ratta-tat-ing away with Barcelona in an aerial dogfight. But the street-smart Barcelona quickly grew wise to Liverpool’s defensive patterns.

  • This was a Messi masterclass of a different kind. It gave the footballing world a glimpse of the chainmail-guile under the golden finishes.

Barcelona won 3-0 vs Liverpool in the first leg of 2018-19 Champions League semi-final, at the Camp Nou. Liverpool’s former imp, Luis Suarez, slid in to score the opener, while Lionel Messi was present and correct, first, with a close-range tap-in, secondly with a free kick off an Apollonian excellence.

Physics tells us that forces should cancel each other out. Unfortunately, for Liverpool on the night, their immovable object, Van Dijk, blinked. Twice. Suarez was allowed to impersonate Wile E. Coyote riding an oil slick on skates. And, before the free-kick, in the slow-moving century of a Van Dijk second,  Messi snuck in and laid the siege inside Liverpool’s inner defensive walls.

Champions League Lionel Messi elevates Barcelona with typical masterclass as Liverpool struggle in unfamiliar system

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring Barcelona's second goal against Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final first leg. Reuters

How did the free-kick look like? Messi’s left foot was eloquent and poised, like a preacher at a funeral, reading the final rites to Liverpool’s Champions League charge. You must have seen Nordic water funeral rituals depicted on TV? Messi fired a flame-tipped arrow into Liverpool’s floating, bobbling-at-sea pyre from the distance of 26 yards. It was in equal parts watching a smoky heating-iron sink into a fluffy memory-foam pillow, as the ball sank into the net. If Messi’s left foot had sentience, I gander, it would wear turtlenecks, make nu-jazz remixes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk saxophone records, write letters to Pedro Almodovar, and quote passages from Jorge Luis Borges’s Books of Sand. That was Messi’s 8th direct free-kick goal this season. For context, Manchester United, City, and Liverpool have a combined 7.

“In these moments he is unstoppable,” Jurgen Klopp admitted. “That free-kick can’t be defended against.” In Klopp’s estimation, Messi symbolises the very zenith of football. He’s not wrong. Messi has 9 goals vs Arsenal, 8 vs Milan, 6 against Manchester City, 4 against Manchester United and Bayern Munich, 3 against Chelsea, and now 2 each against Liverpool, Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur.  

The most imperious sculptor in our known history, Stanisław Szukalski, figuratively, kept Antonio Rodin in his left pocket, and Michelangelo in his right pocket and walked towards the sun. His nimbleness and individuality of his mind and hands, made the Renaissance period look like it somewhat underachieved. He enthused that human beings need to suck out the essence out of their individual souls, through their thumbs, and rarely look for elsewhere for inspiration. In football, Messi embodies this spirit of man’s uttermost self-actualisation. When Liverpool’s Fabinho was out-staging Arturo Vidal on the cynical challenges tally, Messi raised his canniness to match the high stakes. Fabinho, usually ice-cold composure was sweltering under the pressure.

“Messi always surprises you,” an earnest Valverde said. “I don’t know how he does it. He also does it in times when we need it. We gained some breathing room thanks to him.”

On Bein Sports, Costacurta, someone who knows a thing or two about defending said: "Van Dijk was sleeping on Suarez's goal.” The former Godfather of catenaccio and Italian football, Fabio Capello added, “That was a very easy defensive covering to make. It was three defenders against one player."

To their credit, Liverpool started off like the Red Baron ratta-tat-ing away with Barcelona in an aerial dogfight. But the street-smart Barcelona quickly grew wise to Liverpool’s defensive patterns. Barcelona were more acquainted to playing against their 4-4-2, than Liverpool had playing it. The system was unfamiliar to onwatching fans, who upon the revealing of the team sheet an hour before kick-off were more than mildly apprehensive. And when Naby Keita had to go off in the opening minutes, Liverpool’s plan A went on a visible nosedive.

Gini Wijnaldum was tasked to play false nine and interchange positions with Naby Keita — bring balance and movement off the ball. Jordan Henderson, the man brought in to replace Keita, stood out like a CGI Stan Lee cameo in a Marvel movie — not in a good way. Admittedly, Henderson created the most number of chances for Liverpool in the first half (2), but that was more of a testament of how little his team created in general. Ululating like a Dothraki horde, Andy Robertson, undaunted stuck to his task, and was Liverpool’s best player, combing with a pompous and preening Sadio Mane (back-heels and all), carving Barcelona’s left-side open like a pig on a spit. Barcelona soon arrived with fire extinguisher.

Vidal was forced to play as a left axillary center back at times when Liverpool pushed the tempo in the second half. They nearly scored twice in the space of five minutes. The Premier League side’s game plan looked more defined. But that only lasted until Barcelona’s second goal, after which it became a case of the English side preventing the 3rd goal. Liverpool are not used to playing on the backfoot, and it showed. Liverpool players who thrived on winning the ball further up the pitch, became nervy as Suarez’s movement made their backline drop deep.

From there on, Barcelona’s street-ness and capacity to both dive on minimal contact and decry simulation, took centre stage, and was an obstinate, unmoving pillow in the face whatever little momentum Liverpool had remaining. Messi led the choreography. The free-kick for the goal was won at Fabinho’s expense.

Journalist Melissa Reddy summed up the match precisely: “This feels like one of those games explained by a shrug and the phrase "that's football." Plus "well, Leo Messi." Until his first of the night and #FCB's second, #LFC dominated the play with such an impressive away performance. But... That's football. And well, Leo Messi.”

This was a Messi masterclass of a different kind. It gave the footballing world a glimpse of the chainmail-guile under the golden finishes. One often understates the kind of underlying practicality and expediency genius and beauty ultimately needs to survive the unforgiving world of studs-up exclamation points. Last night, Mohamed Salah could only come away with mental notes to apply when they face each other at Anfield next week.

Can Liverpool overturn the deficit? At Anfield, stranger things have happened.

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