How Liverpool can beat Barcelona: Stopping Lionel Messi and clinical counter-attacks

How Liverpool can beat Barcelona: Stopping Lionel Messi and clinical counter-attacks

Liverpool face Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Champions League semi-final first leg on Wednesday – but how exactly do Jurgen Klopp’s side go about beating Ernesto Valverde’s newly-crowned La Liga champions?

Trailing leaders Manchester City by one point in the Premier League, Liverpool must switch focus from The Run In when travelling to Barcelona on Wednesday night.

  • Liverpool’s remaining fixtures | Premier League table
  • Firmino trains ahead of Barca tie

A daunting task awaits Liverpool. Barcelona were crowned Spanish champions on Saturday, and inflicted Manchester United’s worst European aggregate defeat in the previous round.

Here, we consider how Liverpool can beat Barcelona on their own turf, as Klopp’s men bid to bring a positive result back to Anfield for next week’s return leg.

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Dubbed an “extra-terrestrial” by manager Valverde after March’s Clasico win over Real Madrid, Lionel Messi will be heavily occupying the thoughts of Klopp and Liverpool’s defenders alike.

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“Thank God I don’t have to think about that tonight,” Klopp joked immediately after Liverpool’s quarter-final win over Porto. “And thank God I have a few more nights to think about it, because I think everybody tried it so far [stopping Messi] and nobody can do it. We still will try it. We’re looking forward to it, but we have so many jobs to do before we meet Barcelona.”

Premier League wins over Cardiff and Huddersfield have come and gone since Klopp made those remarks in Portugal, and his primary focus will now be on Barcelona and how to prevent their talisman taking the tie away from them before next week’s second leg at Anfield.

The Liverpool boss will have watched Chris Smalling take matters into his own hands when Messi faced Manchester United in the quarter-final, first leg at Old Trafford earlier this month, with the Argentinian left with a bloodied nose after a first-half aerial clash.

Smalling declared Messi knew it was “accidental”, though it did lead to a subdued performance as Barcelona took a narrow 1-0 win to the Nou Camp. However, Messi had already played a key role in their away goal, and went on to have the last laugh in the second leg, benefitting from two United mistakes as his double steered his side to a 4-0 aggregate victory.

Messi was at his devastating best against United, and Klopp will be weighing up whether or not it is worth trying to man-mark a player who so often drops back, drifts centrally, and, of course, has proven to be at times ‘unmarkable’.

Any decision to man-mark the Argentinian will open up the risk of allowing other Barcelona players more freedom, namely former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, but Klopp will also know that restricting the time and space Messi has on the ball is essential.

As a result, we could see Klopp revert to a defensively-inclined midfield three, with Naby Keita – flourishing in the league of late – a potential casualty in the starting XI.

Keita has started just one of Liverpool’s five Champions League games away from home this season, while James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum have started all five.

Liverpool’s starting midfielders in Europe
At Napoli (L 1-0):
Milner, Wijnaldum, Keita
At Red Star (L 2-0): Milner, Wijnaldum, Lallana
At PSG (L 2-1): Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson
At Bayern Munich (W 3-1): Milner, Wijnaldum, Henderson
At Porto (W 4-1): Milner, Wijnaldum, Fabinho

Assuming Milner and Wijnaldum feature from the off at the Nou Camp, Klopp is left with one final midfield position to fill, and it would appear Jordan Henderson or Fabinho are more likely than Keita to take that spot as Liverpool bid to keep Messi quiet.

Van Dijk’s verdict: It’s not just Messi

Virgil van Dijk will be central to Liverpool’s defensive efforts on Wednesday, and the Dutch defender insists beating Barcelona takes more than just silencing Messi.

  • Van Dijk out to erase Nou Camp memories

“I think he [Messi] is the best player in the world,” Van Dijk said. “But you see how we play and how we defend. We don’t defend one-v-one, we defend all together and we attack all together as well, so we will see. We will be ready.

“The situation is that we are in the semi-final against Barcelona and we are going to face the best player in the world, but it is not only him, the whole team has a lot of quality. We will prepare well and we have also a very good team so we can compete there. It is not like we are going there for a holiday.”

Lessons from Betis’ win: Joy down the wings

Barcelona are not accustomed to losing at the Nou Camp. They have done so just once this season – back in November when Real Betis won 4-3 to inflict a first home defeat in La Liga on Valverde’s side for more than two years.

Focusing on just one of Barcelona’s 27 home matches this season makes for wishful thinking, but there will be patterns from the defeat to Betis which Klopp will look to exploit on Wednesday.

In an open affair which saw 29 shots recorded between the two sides, both Barca and Betis could have taken the lead with a number of early chances, but it was the visitors who were 2-0 up at the break after finishing off two counter-attacks in clinical fashion.

With Barca’s full-backs pushed up, Betis exposed the space left in behind, as Junior got the better of Barcelona right-back Sergi Roberto to break the deadlock before a second break attacking the hosts’ right-hand side eventually led to Joaquin scoring their second.

Lionel Messi reduced the deficit before a Giovani Lo Celso strike slipped through the hands of Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and after Arturo Vidal made it 3-2, Ivan Rakitic saw red two minutes before Betis scored a fourth after finding more joy down the left – Junior’s cross turned in by Sergio Canales.

A second for Messi goal in injury-time could not prevent Barcelona from falling to a second, and their most recent, defeat in the league.

Barcelona may already be champions, but with three games remaining they have already conceded more goals (32) than they let in last season (29), while Liverpool themselves are an course for their second-best season in front of goal in the Premier League. With two games to go, they have scored 84 goals, the same amount as last year, but still some 17 off their 2013/14 campaign tally of 101.

With Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, who is back in training ahead of the first leg, Liverpool will be confident of getting a valuable away goal at the Nou Camp. The biggest question will be whether they can restrict Barcelona to a first blank at home all season.

Charlie Nicholas’ prediction

We are into the Hollywood part of the tournament now, and these two will be favourites to lift the trophy whoever reaches the final. Barcelona clinched the title and Lionel Messi scored in a 30-minute cameo and was, crucially, rested. When you hear Messi speak about individual things you know he means business, and he has come out and said he wants the Champions League in his locker once more.


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