Liverpool have been drawn against tournament favourites Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final.
The Reds narrowly avoided meeting the Blaugrana in last year’s semis when the Catalans blew their 4-1 lead against Roma, but this year both sides came through their quarter-finals to ensure a clash of styles at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona are an entirely different animal to the sides faced by Liverpool so far. Assured in their ability and dripping with quality and experience – they have retained the core of the side that won the Treble back in 2015 and remain an incredibly intelligent team. Moreover they have Leo Messi, the best player in the world, who is a peerless game-changer.
The Blaugrana haven’t lost a home Champions League knockout tie since 2013, and they haven’t lost one with Messi involved since 2007 when it was Liverpool who took them down in the round of 16. So we’ve taken a look at four Barcelona strengths that Liverpool must guard against if they hope to compete, as well as four weaknesses they can exploit to repeat the feat of 2007.
Strength: Width and space
Take a quick glance at Barcelona’s attacking patterns and one thing becomes predominantly clear – their full-backs push absurdly high.
We’ll get to the drawback to that in a moment. First, we need to take a look at what that does to their opponents. When playing against less talented or ambitious sides, the likes of Jordi Alba, Nelson Semedo and Sergi Roberto buccaneering forward serves to pin opposition full-backs, denying them the chance to break and support the attack, effectively stifling any chance of hitting Barca with counter attacks.
Not only that, but the width they generate also pulls players out of position and creates chasms of space to allow Ousmane Dembele the chance to drive in between the full-back and centre-back, using his electric pace to terrify the slower players hidden in the middle.
When Dembele plays, Barca will seek to create this space for him and Messi aside, he is arguably their greatest weapon. Dogged defending and strict positional discipline are absolutely paramount when defending against a Dembele-armed Barca.
However, Liverpool are not one of those aforementioned, ‘less ambitious’ teams.
The Reds are a legendarily lethal counter-attacking side. They break at a terrifying pace through three staggeringly good forwards in Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané. They have the kind of quality that can really hurt the Blaugrana, possessing devastating pace to get in behind exposed high lines and dead-eye finishing should they get one-on-one.
Leopard’s don’t change their spots and Barca will not change their philosophy. Their full-backs will continue to push aggressively high as they always do, firm in their belief they can dominate any side on the planet. However, one quick transition through Trent Alexander-Arnold or Jordan Henderson, or one clearance into the space the full-backs have vacated and the Blaugrana could have a serious problem on their hands.
Strength: Death by passing
What’s that? Barcelona like to pass the ball?
Yes, we’re all well aware of Barca’s undisputed possession dominance but honestly, it is one of their greatest strengths. You cannot score without the ball and you can get incredibly tired chasing it around.
The Spanish champions have played the highest number of passes (7,012) and averaged the largest share of possession (63.35%) in this season’s Champions League. When they get the ball it may be a long, long while before you get it back.
And shock, both of those sides rank among the top four for goals scored in this season’s competition, with Barca on 23 and City on 30 – both are experts in patiently shifting possession from side to side in search of weaknesses and gaps to exploit.
You can deploy the lowest of blocks, you can be the most disciplined defence on planet Earth, but if you spend 65-70% of the game without the ball, you will tire. Just as a boa constrictor will kill its prey slowly, Barca will suffocate you with possession and as we saw with Lyon’s late collapse at the Camp Nou, that is where they’ll devastate you.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.
Weakness: Crosses into the box
Of the 207 aerial duels they have faced in this season’s Champions League, Barcelona have lost 111 (53.62%) of them, while a look at Lucas Tousart’s goal against them for Lyon highlights a distinct weakness when defending crosses into the box.
None of Barca’s full-backs are particularly strong in the air, while Sergi Roberto has often been seen as a defensive liability for the Catalonians. A short corner, just like the one for Tousart’s goal, can easily disrupt Barca’s set-piece defending and present aerially dominant players such as Virgil van Dijk and Roberto Firmino with the chance to use their height and bully smaller defenders once the cross is made.
Furthermore, it isn’t just deep crosses in the air that Barcelona struggle with. During their ding-dong clash with Sevilla in February, which they eventually won 4-2, the intense attacking nature of Barca’s full-backs came back to bite them once again. Sevilla’s second goal, scored by Gabriel Mercado, came as a direct result of the Andalusians counter-attacking into the wide spaces.
However, once the ball was worked into the box and the low cross was made, the slow rate of reaction from the Barcelona defence was remarkable and highlights another area where the likes of Salah and Mané can profit.
Strength: Champions League experience
That being said, regardless of any weakness to balls into the box, Barcelona are European experts.
In Messi, Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and co, Ernesto Valverde has a bunch of players at his disposal that have gone deep in the Champions League, year after year. In fact, the aforementioned five players alone have a combined 12 Champions League winners medals between them.
Liverpool’s squad, on the other hand, is packed with players who only really announced themselves in the Champions League last season. Now sure, alright, they made the final that year but they’ve not had to navigate the kind of blockbuster two-legged encounter that Barcelona know how to handle. Even if Liverpool picked up a first-leg lead, Barca’s veterans are unlikely to wilt under the pressure – we all remember the 6-1 against PSG, right?
Weakness: Lack of pace
Dembele may be terrifyingly fast, but take him and Malcom – who has been unfairly marginalised – out of the Barcelona attack and they pretty much lose the ability to go in behind – especially with Suarez advancing into his 30s and slowing down at an alarming rate.
The Frenchman is their only truly lighting player going forward, with Malcom and Alba the only other players in the squad with a real sprint in their locker.
Strength: They have a Messi
You can compress the space, man-mark him, or even put him in a space ship and blast him into orbit, but there is still often very little you can do to stop the relentless genius that is Lionel Messi.
Even if Dembele is missing and Barcelona cannot stretch United with his pace, the Argentine ace can operate in physics-defining parameters and is often mere seconds away from that match-defining moment – see his mockery of the art of free-kick taking in recent weeks.
Messi (117) is second only to Sofiane Boufal (119) for successful dribbles in La Liga this season, while the 31-year-old is the top-scorer in this season’s Champions League with 10 goals, including a brace in the last round against Manchester United.
Do yourselves a favour and watch the third and fourth goals of Barca’s 5-1 win over Lyon to see the mind-bending, paradigm-shifting capabilities Messi possesses with the ball at his feet – he’ll sit you down, let you get back up, then put you on your back again before he scores.
Messi is like that awesome tank cheatcode in GTA, dropping from the sky and making pretty much anything within his vicinity explode or, in this case, turn into goals. Regardless of whether he has an opposition SWAT team on his back.
And moreover he routinely destroys the Premier League big six sides, bagging 24 goals – though none of those have come against Liverpool and the Argentine will be itching to set that straight.
The only criticism of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is that he has scored that many improbable goals, he’s now made his highlights reel look completely normal.
Weakness: Over-reliance on Messi and Suarez
So, we’ve established that Messi is a god. We know that, on his day, Suarez is still capable of incredible moments and continues to score goals at a remarkable rate.
However, while that provides great strength for Barca, it is also one of their most fundamental flaws. If Liverpool are somehow able to silence Messi, what happens then? If Van Dijk manages to snuff out Suarez, where do Barca turn? What if they get injured?
Messi and Suarez have 46 and 24 goals, respectively, this season – while the next closest Blaugrana player is Dembele, who has 13.
But despite Messi’s obvious greatness, the Argentinian hasn’t scored against Liverpool in three attempts. And Luis Suárez hasn’t scored in this season’s Champions League (in fact he has just one goal in his last 20 games in the competition) and hasn’t scored away from home in the competition since Autumn 2015.
There’s every chance that Messi and Suarez will simply run riot and steamroll Liverpool, they have that ability, but should one or both of them succumb to injury or an off night, the Reds will have a much easier task on their hands and would even fancy their chances of upsetting the Catalans and qualifying for their second consecutive final.