Liverpool are set to host Barcelona tonight in their enormous Champions League semi-final second leg.
The Reds lost the first leg 3-0 in the Camp Nou, and will need an incredible turnaround on one of those magical nights at Anfield if they are to make it back to their second consecutive Champions League final.
It seems an impossible task but Barcelona threw away a three goal lead last year against Roma. But the Italian side had an away goal and Liverpool do not. This will shape the tie, but what could happen at Anfield? We had a look:
1. Anfield will be rocking and Liverpool will come out flying
It’s a cliché now, “special European nights at Anfield” – commentators love to invoke it, but it rarely is that much of a factor. Sure Anfield is a great stadium and the crowd can get rowdy, but Liverpool do well at home because they’re a good side more than any mystical energy.
That said, Anfield can get properly loud when the occasion calls for it. The reason the cliché exists is because there have been numerous examples of it. From singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” prior to the match to the giant flags and scarves to the endless wall of noise, Anfield can be a devastating and intimidating place to play and Liverpool will play heavily on that.
So the atmosphere will be raucous and the Reds will come flying out of the gate. Whereas in the first leg, Liverpool were somewhat cautious and didn’t really press the Blaugrana that much compared to the way they usually do – tonight they will be all over Barcelona like the army of the dead in Game of Thrones. Pure high-level pressing, looking to catch their visitors out with an early blitz to peg a goal (or two) back.
2. Roma Recalled: Barça will miss Dembélé’s pace
Barcelona threw away a three goal lead in the Champions League last season as they beat Roma 4-1 at Old Trafford but then got turned over 3-0 in the Italian capital. Part of the reason that happened was because Ernesto Valverde didn’t play Ousmane Dembélé in Rome, meaning that the Barça attack was entirely without pace.
That lack of pace allowed Roma to push up, press high and send bodies flying forward. This overwhelmed the Blaugrana and every time they broke the press to send the ball in behind the defence, Luis Suárez and Leo Messi lacked the breakaway speed to get free and the Roma defenders have managed to chase them down and get the ball back.
Meanwhile this season, despite resting everyone else at the weekend, Dembélé played against Celta Vigo and picked up a hamstring injury in the process. This is bad news for Barça because now they have no pace in attack (Valverde is highly unlikely to use Malcom) and this will enable Liverpool to press forward and overwhelm the Blaugrana and there will be large stretches of the game where Barcelona will struggle to break out beyond that press as Liverpool’s athletic defenders will swallow them up.
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3. Klopp will have a tactical tweak up his sleeves
Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino are going to miss the game through injury. Salah picked up a concussion in the dramatic win over Newcastle on Saturday night whereas Firmino has been struggling with a muscle injury that meant he could only start the first leg on the bench. These are two massive injuries as they really will hamper the quality in Liverpool’s attack.
Liverpool will call on Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri or Daniel Sturridge as replacements, but they don’t carry the same level of quality at all – even though Origi now has two last-minute winners under his belt for the season. So to make up for the lack of Salah and Firmino, Klopp will have a unique tactical twist up his sleeves to unsettle Barcelona.
Could it be three at the back? Maybe a false nine? Or what if they go proper 4-4-2 with Sadio Mané and Shaqiri wide then Sturridge and Origi as strikers? Or perhaps his tweak will be selecting 19-years-old Rhian Brewster for his first senior start? Brewster was the top scorer for England as they won the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup and has shown tremendous potential. Starting a youngster (or the freshly returned Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain) could provide the Reds with the surprise factor needed to get the big win.
4. One of the ex-Liverpool boys will score
It seems fated, doesn’t it? Coutinho left Liverpool for Barcelona at the start of 2018, having fought his way out of Anfield even though no one wanted him to leave. In the end he had to wait an extra six months before getting his dream move, but he got there in the end. Ditto Luis Suárez, who was convinced to stay for that nearly-historic 2013/14 before finally getting his dream move.
Both men have a great connection to Liverpool and they’re both at a weirdly low ebb now.
Coutinho has struggled this season with his form. Even when he plays well his lungs seem to give out after 30 minutes and he disappears from the game thereafter. He’s been such a disappointment there is a genuine sensation that the Blaugrana will sell him in the summer despite his colossal price tag.
Then there’s Luis Suárez, who is ageing rapidly before our eyes like he drank from the wrong cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He’s nowhere near the force he was, and although he turned home in the first leg to notch his first Champions League goal of the season that was at the Camp Nou. Away from home he hasn’t scored a European goal since a group stage goal against Roma in 2015, that’s 1,329 days ago.
Leo Messi was the goalscoring hero at the Camp Nou but at Anfield he is likely to drop deep and help the Blaugrana out in more of a midfield creator role, leaving the door open for one Suárez and Coutinho to steal the headlines.
So these two superstars “coming home” at a low moment, facing their old team who will be desperate to overturn the first leg deficit, who will be under huge pressure in a hostile atmosphere with no pace in attack to save them… you can see one of them popping up and slapping one in the back of the net, can’t you? Totally against the run of play, but it’s bound to happen.
5. Liverpool will win, but still lose
Liverpool lost 3-0 at the Camp Nou so not only do they have to win at Anfield but they have to win well. A 3-0 win, which would be amazing given the level of their opponent, would only take the tie to extra time. They would have to hammer the Blaugrana 4-0 to complete the turnaround, and no one has done that since Bayern Munich in 2013 and Leo Messi was half-injured for that tie whereas now he’s fully rested.
Even one Barcelona goal would make this task exponentially bigger as the Reds would need five goals to stay alive. If Barça score twice then Liverpool need six. It’s an absolutely ridiculous task, and one they sadly will not manage to complete. The Reds will almost certainly win the match, the atmosphere and determination of the side will see to that, but they won’t do it by a big enough margin to beat Barcelona and make their second straight final. It’ll be 2-1 or 3-1, impressive for sure, but just not enough and the Blaugrana will walk on to Madrid.