2018-19 Champions League first leg semifinal: Barcelona vs. Liverpool

Liverpool’s high-wire act on two fronts continues Wednesday at the Camp Nou, where they face Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The five-time European champions continued their back and forth with reigning Premier League champions Manchester City last weekend, flattening relegated Huddersfield Town 5-0 at Anfield on Friday before City defeated Burnley a day later to move back atop the table by one point.

Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane both recorded braces on either side of halftime, and left back Andrew Robertson set up a goal for each of them as Liverpool won their 10th consecutive match on the bounce in all competitions and extended their unbeaten streak to 19 (14-5-0).

Salah set a Liverpool record with the most goals in his first 100 appearances for Liverpoool, reaching 69. The Egypt international passed club legends Sam Raybould and Rogert Hunt, and also stayed one ahead of Mane in the race for the Premier League’s Golden Boot with 21 goals. After needing seven matches to notch his 50th league goal with the Reds, Salah has five in his last six matches spanning all competitions.

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(Mohamed Salah/Sadio Mane photo courtesy Liverpool FC official Twitter account)

Still, there is a difference in smashing five past the worst team in the Premier League table and trying to find creases against the storied Catalan side. Barcelona have conceded just six goals in their Champions League matches, and swatted aside Manchester United with relative ease in the quarterfinals with a 4-0 aggregate victory.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, however, is having his team embrace the positives of getting to this point as they are 180 minutes from a potential second consecutive Champions League finals appearance. The two-track course they have run with an exponential ratcheting of intensity with each passing week appears to have sharpened the Reds, who continue to get the job done.

“It’s brilliant. The only thing that would be better is if someone told us we are already champions but that’s quite difficult to reach,” Klopp said Tuesday when asked about competing for the two biggest trophies they can acquire, including a first Premier League title in club history. “In other years it could have been like this but it’s not a problem, we are completely fine. We like the situation, the boys created that situation and now we are here.

“It’s a wonderful situation, to be honest: flying here, going to Barcelona. It’s not even two years ago that it was a big, big thing for the club to qualify for the Champions League and now we are second time in a row in the semi-finals – that’s big. It’s only positive and everybody sees it like that.”

Klopp’s biggest health concern for this match has been the status of centre-forward Roberto Firmino, who has held out of the win over Huddersfield Town with what Klopp described as a “small muscle tear.” The Brazil international did practice with the team and was named on the 22-man traveling roster, but he is a match-time decision; Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi are potential replacements if Firmino cannot play and Klopp maintains a 4-3-3 set-up.

“If Bobby is 100 per cent ready to play then he will maybe play,” Klopp said. “He is here, he trained today, we have tomorrow another session and then I have to make a decision. That’s it.”

While Firmino’s goal production has tailed off from 27 to 16 this season, Klopp values the Brasilian’s on-pitch nous and ability to maintain spacing for Salah and Mane to use their respective pace and talents. Mane has been electric in knockout-round ties for Liverpool, totaling nine goals in 10 matches and scoring at least one goal in each of the five ties in addition to his marker in the Champions League final last year.

The other area where Klopp has lineup decisions is in midfield, but that is because everyone is healthy. The most likely trio would be Fabinho flanked by Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, but it is possible Naby Keita’s form of late could result in him being in the first XI.

Along the back four, Joel Matip is expected to return after sitting out the win over Huddersfield and resume his central defence partnership with newly minted PFA Player of the Year Virgil Van Dijk. The Netherlands international has been at the heart of a defence that has shipped just nine goals in their 10 Champions League matches, a stark contrast from shipping 19 in 15 while finishing runners-up to Real Madrid in 2018.

Barcelona are pursuing a quadruple, having wrapped up the second trophy in that quest last weekend by clinching the La Liga title. The Blaugrana fielded largely a first-choice lineup in their 1-0 victory over Levante on Saturday, though their hopes of holding out superstar Lionel Messi of the match were dashed when Ernesto Valverde introduced him at halftime.

Messi delivered the lone goal of the contest just after the hour as Barca claimed their second consecutive La Liga title, 10th with Messi, and 26th overall. It was the 34th goal in all competitions for the Argentina international, who has factored on 47 of the side’s 86 goals this term.

D5TkeaJXsAAtbLy(Team photo courtesy FC Barcelona official Twitter account)

Fellow five-times winners of the Champions League, Barcelona are seeking their fifth such title in the last 13 years. Yet the fabled Spanish side have not been to the finals since they last lifted Ol’ Big Ears in 2015, and even a domestic treble might not be enough to ease the sting of falling one step short yet again.

“You expect us to win the title, but we have not had much time to take it all in,” Valverde said after clinching the domestic title. “This tie is marvelous for us. They are a great side and it will be very difficult. They are a great team, they showed that last season by getting to the finals of the Champions League and this season they have lost only one game in the Premier League.

“It is going to be complicated,” Barca wide midfielder Ivan Rakitic added at Tuesday’s press conference. “They have very good players up front. We shouldn’t let them run at spaces and at our backs. We have to take the game into our hands and keep them away from our goal.”

The most glaring subplot to this match are Messi’s forward partners — ex-Liverpool strikers Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. Both played parts on sides that nearly ended the Reds’ Premier League title drought — Suarez in 2013-14 when he scored 31 goals for the runners-up and Coutinho in 2016-17 when he scored 14 en route to a fourth-place finish.

Both forced their moves to the Nou Camp in contentious fashion, and while Suarez has seamlessly figured out his spot with the club as Barca’s centre-forward, Coutinho has been underwhelming at times and has only 11 goals in all competitions — two fewer than Ousmane Dembele despite playing nearly 600 more minutes.

“It’s been years since we last played in a Champions League semifinal, and we are very keen to achieve our objective,” Suarez told the club’s official website. “You can’t get distracted for a second in the Champions League, because you pay dearly for it.

“Liverpool can bring the ball out from the back. They have very good players in the midfield who can get the ball to the forwards. They maybe have a similar shape to us. I don’t think that there will be too much of a difference in style, but we are both strong sides.”

“I am really looking forward to playing in my first Champions League semifinal, and I want to do a good job. In addition, returning to Anfield will be very special, because I was very happy at Liverpool.,” added Coutinho, who is 16 months removed from his £105 million move from Anfield to the Camp Nou. “The Champions Leaguue is our big objective and we have to have a strong mentality for these types of games.”

“Liverpool are a side with a very strong mentality, above all at home. They area great side in attack and defence, so we will have to be alert.”

Barcelona have won four straight in all competitions and are unbeaten in 22 overall (16-6-0) since a first-leg loss to Sevilla in the quarterfinals of the Copa Del Rey. They also have won eight on the bounce at home and are unbeaten in 18 at the Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana have not beaten Liverpool in four all-time Champions League matches at Camp Nou, losing two and drawing two. The most recent matchup was a 2-1 victory for the Reds in the first leg of their round of 16 tie in 2007, a tie won by Liverpool on away goals.

Those two losses stand as the only two defeats Barca have suffered at home in 42 matches against English teams (28-12-2). They are unbeaten in 31 Champions League home matches in Catalonia (28-3-0) since a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the second leg of the 2013 semifinals.

PREDICTION

This match can spiral into multiple directions, some of which will not be determined until Klopp hands in his lineup sheet with or without Firmino listed. If the latter occurs, it may be a case where the Liverpool boss opts for balance with two holding midfielders and Salah leading the line in a 4-2-3-1. However, the belief is that Firmino is in the first XI since he made the trip to Spain.

Much was made about the things Barcelona did not do in their quarterfinal tie against Manchester United — with the main argument being the Blaugrana did not put forth their “A” game for much of either leg. They did get a couple of breaks in the second leg — United hit the crossbar in the opening minutes of the second leg, and David De Gea’s howler on Messi’s second goal in the first half effectively ended the tie — but they were still rarely threatened over those 180 minutes.

Liverpool will not be anywhere near as passive, and that high press can cause Barcelona’s backline some issues. People point to Barca’s 4-4 draw at Villarreal in early April as a blueprint and fount of optimism, but the other truth is the Catalan side have conceded once in the last seven matches since that fire wagon was let loose in Villarreal.

Liverpool’s priority will be getting their offence going from the flanks and limiting the possession among Barca’s midfield. Robertson and right back Trent Alexander-Arnold have been the quiet unsung heroes of Liverpool’s offence, combining to assist on 25 goals in all competitions.

Robertson in particular was deadly accurate in the flogging of Huddersfield Town last Friday, but Klopp’s side must find a way to hold possession enough in midfield to give their two wide backs the chance to bomb forward and stretch Barca’s defense.

The challenge for Liverpool is two-fold: To keep any potential first-leg deficit manageable and snatch a road goal to bring back to Anfield. Both are very doable given the Reds’ talent, and while Barcelona have already faced Tottenham Hotspur and United this season, it also has been abundantly clear both of those top-six sides are clearly a notch or two below the level Liverpool and Manchester City have played since the turn of the calendar year.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Barcelona 2, Liverpool 1.

(Camp Nou photo courtesy FC Barcelona official Twitter account)

 

 

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