BARCELONA: Barcelona beat Liverpool 3-0 in the Champions League semi-final first leg on Wednesday.
After three successive quarter-final defeats, Lionel Messi is on a mission to lead Barcelona to their first Champions League final appearance since they last won the tournament in 2015.
Messi, Barca’s incomparable striker, made a promise last September to ‘bring that beautiful trophy’ back to the Camp Nou and his late double – which took him to an incredible 600 career goals for the club – was a huge step towards achieving that dream.
The Argentine had failed to score in his two previous appearances against Liverpool and for long periods he was held in check by Reds centre-back Virgil van Dijk and his fellow defenders.
But Messi is too talented to be subdued for long and he finally escaped Van Dijk’s clutches to score from close-range after Suarez’s effort hit the bar in the 75th minute.
Messi was just getting warmed up and in the 82nd minute he left Liverpool stunned when he curled a superb 25-yard free-kick into the top corner.
It was another frustrating evening in the Camp Nou for Van Dijk, who was given a rough ride on his last visit in 2013 as a 22-year-old Celtic defender in a 6-1 defeat.
The Dutch international has improved dramatically since that night and arrived back in Spain as the newly crowned PFA Player of the Year, but even he was no match for the peerless Messi in the end.
Klopp’s fears come true
Jurgen Klopp feared Liverpool would “suffer” against a team of Barcelona’s quality, and the German’s nightmare scenario came true as they crumbled in a cruel finale.
Klopp’s side fell behind in the 26th minute when former Liverpool forward Luis Suarez produced a predatory finish to convert Jordi Alba’s cross.
But Liverpool, hoping to reach successive Champions League finals after losing last year’s to Real Madrid, were unbowed by that setback and went on to deliver a solid display that could easily have brought them an equaliser with better finishing and a less inspired show from Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Only when Messi made his devastating contribution in the last 15 minutes, did Liverpool look overwhelmed and even then they should have snatched a priceless away goal when Mohamed Salah hit the woodwork.
In 42 previous games, English teams had won only twice in the Camp Nou.
Liverpool were the victors on both occasions, but Barcelona were unbeaten in last 31 home games in Champions League dating back six years.
So it was easy to see why Klopp was concerned in his pre-match briefing about the damage that could be done by Messi and company.
“We won’t be perfect, we will make mistakes, we will suffer, 100%,“ Klopp had said.
His assessment was correct and now Liverpool go into Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield needing to emulate their greatest Champions League night – when they came from 3-0 down at half-time to beat AC Milan in the 2005 final.
Firmino injury hampers Liverpool
Struggling with an injury, Roberto Firmino was only fit enough to make an 11-minute cameo and Liverpool were hamstrung without their Brazilian forward.
Firmino missed Friday’s win over Huddersfield with a thigh muscle tear and Klopp decided he was initially only fit enough for a place among the substitutes.
Firmino was the only player to have featured in all 38 of Klopp’s European games in charge of the Reds and his absence proved a big blow.
With Firmino on the bench, Klopp took a gamble by playing Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum as a makeshift striker instead of using Divock Origi or Xherdan Shaqiri, who have both played that role more often.
Wijnaldum grafted gamely enough, but lacked the instinctive movement, hold-up play and finishing skills that Firmino brings to the team.
Shorn of their attacking fulcrum, Liverpool still competed well but it was significant that a lack of composure in front of goal proved their downfall. — AFP