Liverpool vs. Barcelona: A Special Night for a Special Club
Many clubs are special but some are particularly special for certain reasons
When it comes to European football, few can touch the story that Liverpool have created, the tide of emotions and history evoked by recalling the great European nights at Anfield, beneath the lights, in front of the Kop. Jurgen Klopp has added perhaps the greatest of them all with the greatest comeback against the club with the greatest player of all time.
Klopp is often regarded as the orchestrator of emotions, preferring passion over tactical nous. But the football of heart, spirit and collectivism fed by the energy of a red-hot feverish home support is as much a tactical choice as anything else. Klopp sees the game through the prism of intensity, aggression, teamwork and bravery. He got it all against a Barcelona side that twinkled in glimpses but swiftly faded when Liverpool’s fire turned into an inferno and consumed them.
The score-line was a reward for a combination of vibrant, attacking football that was incisive, sharp and quick. In particular the cross-flank passes from deep to full-backs surging forward helped them to push Barcelona back, and it facilitated the opener in a furious start. Mane, at the heart of everything, drifted to the right, reclaiming possession from a loose ball, running forward, slipping in Jordan Henderson – yet again decisive with his forward run – whose blocked shot turned into the path of Divock Origi to score.
It was emblematic of the gegenpress: press high, quickly and as a team. Win possession, have midfield runners for the early pass to overwhelm a momentarily disorganised opposition rearguard. Here, it worked brilliantly because of Henderson’s forward burst. He is liberated in this new role, expressive and energetic, linking with the attack and maintaining his defensive duties.
The game was remarkably tense for one that finished with a 4-0 result, and one at times where Liverpool threatened to run Barcelona ragged. Immediately after the goal, Origi was inches away from reaching a loose ball for a certain second. Mane was irresistible while Robertson made decisive blocks and provided that outlet out on the left wing. In the midfield, the physicality of Liverpool’s trio was overcoming Barcelona’s own gutsy trident. And yet, the nature of Liverpool’s performance is both physically and emotionally exhausting. And Barcelona were too extraordinary, even in the mundane moments, to just submit to Liverpool’s willpower.
The visitors injected anxiety with moments of ball-playing brilliance, particular by Sergio Busquets. He was the island of calm in a stormy sea, linking the midfield to the attack, providing a defensive shield. Liverpool started strongly but Barcelona finished with menace. They had chances, first when the evergreen Jordi Alba cut back a pass for Lionel Messi who found Allisson impossible to beat. The Argentine is untouchable when he drops his shoulder and shifts his body. Either a raking pass or a searing dribble awaits immediately. Barcelona shimmered with life and had it not been for Allisson and crucial last-ditch interventions from Fabinho, the tie would have been over in the first-half.
The circumstance being what it was, it was a risk that Liverpool simply had to take. This was a game of two teams separated merely by a fraction of quality, that fraction being Messi. Liverpool lived dangerously on the edge, pushing their full-backs forward to successfully pin Barcelona’s own ones back, but then finding themselves sliced open on the break. The home side had plenty of the ball in the first half, and Mane with his twisting runs and lightning speed was impossible to contain, but there was a degree of hastiness to their play that betrayed palpable anxiety. In particular, Fabinho looked as though he would be sent off because of a bubbling feud with Luis Suarez.
It’s difficult to identify weaknesses with this team but perhaps this is one, an inability to inject control through the midfield base when the game becomes too vast for just a pack of high-energy footballers. Barcelona were lured into an early storm and emerged battered, but survived and looked the more ominous.
Liverpool’s resources were stretched thin with the injury to Andrew Robertson. James Milner covered at full-back while Gini Wijnaldum covered in midfield. Now the attacking impetus would have to come from Trent Alexander-Arnold who performed superbly. The second half was just ten minutes old when Wijnaldum levelled the tie. First, he smashed a powerful shot after Alexander-Arnold’s industrious determination reclaimed possession. Seconds later, Liverpool burst forward again, swift and aggressive, and Shaqiri curled a superb cross for the Dutchman to head in.
The game was curiously poised now. Liverpool had been dominant at this point but Barcelona had carved numerous chances during the first-half. The visitors threatened but they were shaky, almost fearful of losing the ball. The noise rose like a crimson tide every time Liverpool counterattacked. Speed, numbers, intensity: gegenpress as envisioned by Klopp.
Barcelona, recognising that Mane was overwhelming Sergio Roberto, brought on Semedo for the ineffectual Coutinho. It did stabilise their right flank but they generally struggled for a foothold. Busquets was impressive, old legs not impeding a mind that still whirred faster than anyone else’s on the pitch. Vidal provided a presence next to him but simply could not track as well as he had done so in the first leg. Liverpool found more space here than at Camp Nou where Vidal and Busquets provided a stronger covering base. Messi ran into a red wall wherever he turned. Liverpool defended the space rather than him, a tight, compress, asphyxiating unit. It was superb, compact defending that demands an exhausting level of submission of the individual to the collective.
Here, the Reds defended frantically in numbers. When they got the ball, they ran at Barcelona, Origi and Mane impressive, but not alone in that. Fabinho was superb in his physicality, interceptions and tackles. Henderson imbued the team with brilliant energy and tactical awareness, an additional cover for the flanks and whenever Messi looked to spin away through the middle. Alexander-Arnold never stopped running. When playing a left-back like Alba with Shaqiri for an inconsistent ally, it can be daunting. The young defender maintained his ground with excellent positioning, whilst pushing back Alba with runs of his own.
And it was his improvisation that won Liverpool the game by catching Barcelona out. The visitors looked for the decisive away goal but Liverpool’s defence this season is forged in a steel that does not break. Here, even the great Lionel Messi could not break, nor bend it. By the end of the night, his own legend was swallowed by the legend of European nights at Anfield.
Rabbil Sikdar is a Freelance Writer and a huge Liverpool fan who writes about his main interests, football and politics. You can find Rabbil on Twitter.