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7 talking points as Messi brace leaves Reds on the brink

Features By: Ikponmwosa Umweni | 02/05/2019

​Liverpool's Champions League hopes to look all but over after a Lionel Messi double saw Barcelona claim a convincing first leg semi-final win in the Camp Nou, with the Reds missing plenty of chances in the process.

Despite a bright start from Jurgen Klopp's side, the hosts took the lead in the 25th minute when Jordi Alba's pinpoint low cross was expertly converted by Luis Suarez at the near post to claim his first Champions League goal of the season.

Liverpool came out of the traps well in the second half, with James Milner and Mohamed Salah forcing Marc-Andre ter Stegen into excellent saves.

But it was the Spanish champions who grabbed the crucial second goal against the run of play, as Suarez's shot cannoned off the crossbar before Lionel Messi followed up with a tap-in.

Messi completed the scoring with a stunning 30-yard free kick ten minutes before full time, but only before Salah missed a huge opportunity to bag the Reds an away goal, but he could only hit the post from close range.

 Let look at the seven talking points of the encounter on Tuesday night.

Tactically

If you were expecting open, full-blazing attacking football at Camp Nou from those two marvellous teams, you were, perhaps, a bit too optimistic. This was a game of caution. A game between two sides, if not terrified, very respectful of each other. Jurgen Klopp was well-advised of the need to keep Barcelona's fluid machine stifled while Ernesto Valverde knew too well that Liverpool were more than capable of tearing any ball-fondling team to shreds with their voracious attacking forays. The latter is the main reason the more rabid Arturo Vidal was picked ahead of the far more finessing Arthur Melo. It is also why Liverpool's system emphasized modesty over flamboyancy. Joe Gomez for Alexander-Arnold and Milner over Firmino. The priority of "keeping it real" was laid even more bare with the introduction of Nelson Semedo for Philippe Coutinho with half an hour of football to play. The implication was a game that delivered grapes over oranges. It only became open towards the end when Liverpool were left exposed by their sudden need to balance things a little bit.

Klopp's formation change: hit or miss?

I'll answer this one very quickly. Not a miss. With Barcelona running away with a 3-goal win, many would likely hammer on the absence of Roberto Firmino as a reason for the away side's costly bluntness. In my view that need not be so. First, Liverpool do not always rely on the Brazilian attacker for goals. He plays more of a false 9 role. Secondly, Liverpool did make their own chances too and they were missed by players who would normally expect to score. Sadio Mané has been in the form of his life but missed a sitter. James Milner shot straight at Ter Stegen when it was, perhaps, easier to score. Salah missed when he had the goal at his mercy. This was a case of one team taking their chances over the other.

Maybe Van Dijk can't be dribbled but he can lose his man.

Much has been said of Virgil Van Dijk this season. He is an amazing defender that does not need to make a lot of tackles because of his usually effective last-ditch positioning. He is the king of "shadow-marking." He has really helped transform the Liverpool defence over the last season and a half and, thus, given them the platform to venture. But where was he in the two biggest nights in his Liverpool career so far, you wonder. Why did they crumble so badly against Madrid in last season's final and now Barcelona in the semifinal? He had his eye on the wily Luis Suarez all through and let him sneak in behind Joel Matip to tug in the opener. Again he let Suarez run behind him and so well position himself in the 88th minute that if not for a fateful slip from the Uruguayan it would have been a certain goal. Maybe two moments are not enough but they could be crucial.

Johan Cruyff would be the happiest man in his grave right now

If he were alive I doubt there'll be anything more pleasing to Dutch legend Johan Cruyff than a European cup final between Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona. Talk of Mr. Williams watching Serena and Venus do battle in a rare Grand Slam final. It looks like being that way given how the two semifinals have gone so far. Johan Cruyff represented everything good about Dutch, Ajax and Barcelona football whilst he lived. He would have wished for a final like the one we are likely to see but given how badly Dutch football has fallen behind the best of Western Europe over the past two decades even he could not have foreseen it happening so soon.

The English sides have failed again?

A few weeks ago all the noise was about an impending English dominance of European football. With the Three Lions making it to the semifinals of the World Cup, four English clubs making it to the quarterfinals of the Champions League and two to the quarterfinals of the Europa League this season you could be forgiven for having such dreams. It now looks like a non-English UCL final despite two English teams making it into the semifinals. Arsenal and Chelsea be careful too.

This is probably the week that Liverpool's season ends - badly

Will Liverpool win their game at the weekend? Probably not. Newcastle may be safe but I doubt Rafa Benitez would be out to do them any favours. They have been out of the two domestic cups since early on. By the end of the weekend, they may be out of it all.

Messi?

There's nothing left to say of the man. What is interesting is that Ernesto Valverde diverted attention from his little magician by making his team deemphasize playing through him. In the end only one man came to steal the show with a goal of chance and perseverance and a most exquisite of free-kick worldies. His name? Lionel "Balon d'Or" Messi.

This piece of article writing by Okanga Okanga
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