Champions League: Liverpool's high-tempo football faces off with extraordinary Barcelona in tie of endless possibilities
Klopp and Liverpool require another leap forward from their league form to overcome the Spanish giants and earn the right to perhaps play the one team that has toppled all of Europe.
History and last weekend suggest Liverpool could prevail. Barcelona have never eliminated Liverpool from European competition
Enumerating all the talents of a player one watches in wonder is perhaps pointless, but Liverpool can shackle Messi collectively
At the weekend Barcelona won LaLiga, but the victory over Levante was modest, if not unconvincing
On Tuesday, the Champions League was almost a Disneyland where economic imperatives had been trampled by the brisk and bright teenagers of Ajax Amsterdam whose 30-minute spell of integrated, assertive high-pressing overpowered Tottenham Hotspur to score a crucial away goal en route to perhaps the final in Madrid.
Maybe the Ajax fairy tale – in as much as it is one with a club and team richly deserving of all their achievements – is simply an exception that confirms the rule. That is how FC Barcelona and Liverpool will see it. They represent the established order. Last season Liverpool reached the final of the Champions League before falling to serial winners Real Madrid and a sequence of howlers from their own goalkeeper Loris Karius. Barcelona last won the trophy in the 2014/15 season.
Ajax have been demonstrating all season that football is a game of possibilities, something Barcelona and Liverpool will remember on Wednesday in a tie with a rich historical and contemporary tapestry, a tie that could be decided on so many fronts. This indeed feels like a tie of endless possibilities: the pressing, the high-tempo passing, the forward trident, the bursts of heavy-metal football, the triangulation, the geometry, and the everlasting excellence of a transcendent Argentinean: Lionel Messi.
History and last weekend suggest Liverpool could prevail. Barcelona have never eliminated Liverpool from European competition. They have never even defeated the Reds at Camp Nou, today an impenetrable fortress with a record of 31 unbeaten games in the Champions League. At the weekend Barcelona won LaLiga, but the victory over Levante was modest, if not unconvincing. The 1-0 win doesn’t minimize how extraordinary the Catalans remain: it is not just the statistics – winning eight league titles in eleven – but the consistency that underpins their greatness. They keep normalising the extraordinary.
This is a team that lost Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Neymar in quick succession. It’s no small feat to rebuild and maintain excellence when your two midfield stalwarts and virtuosos leave the club. Their domestic dominance, however, never diminished in a league that boasts formidable opposition in Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Valencia. Anno 2019 LaLiga has almost become Barcelona’s personal property, but the treble, with the Copa Del Rey final to come, is the club’s real objective.
In the quarter-finals of the Champions League Manchester United were dismissed with great ease over 180 minutes that never represented a competitive encounter, but Messi, who cautioned with critical words after the first leg at Old Trafford, and Barcelona understand that Liverpool play a modern brand of football that makes much of the Manchester game look like a museum artifact. Jurgen Klopp’s team have, like Barcelona, scored more than 100 goals in all competitions this season. Their domestic form has been brilliant, yet forlorn in a beguiling but unreal title race skewed in Manchester City’s favor with two match days.
On Friday, Liverpool demolished Huddersfield 5-0 with a trademark display of their intensity, passing and pace. It was perhaps the first goal that drew the most attention and compelled Irish Times writer Ken Early to argue that football’s reality is less and less a battle between individuals, and more and more a contest of systems.
In the tie, Messi is the caveat to Early’s theory. Today, the Argentinean spends a lot of time in the shadows, lurking and thinking. He isn’t present in the match and yet he is, much as Manchester United found out in the first leg. At home, he possesses extraordinary goalscoring prowess. Messi has failed to score in just seven games this season and they were all away from the Camp Nou. Enumerating all the talents of a player one watches in wonder is perhaps pointless, but Liverpool can shackle him collectively. After all, it’s been done before and Klopp’s outfit has the best defence in Europe’s top-five leagues.
They can couple that with bursts of high-tempo football or what Barcelona coach Valverde called ‘arrebato’ and ‘arrollar' – surges and steamrollers. Even so, Liverpool have become more and more measured with its spells of pressure and pressing, understanding when to and when not to push up. That balance will be crucial against Barcelona. Klopp and Liverpool require another leap forward from their league form to overcome the Spanish giants and earn the right to perhaps play the one team that has toppled all of Europe.
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Liverpool have finished the season on 99 points. This included a record-equalling 32 wins. They have crowned Champions with seven games remaining, faster than any team in the 132-year-old history of the English first division.
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