With both nothing and yet everything to lose, Liverpool begin what could be the final week of their season needing Anfield to be a historic cauldron once more Tuesday when they attempt to overturn a three-goal deficit versus Barcelona in the second leg of their Champions League semifinal tie.
Potential Starting XIs
It can be argued the greatness of Lionel Messi separated the two sides last week at the Camp Nou, with his two late goals seven minutes apart currently the difference between a merely difficult task and a Herculean one for Liverpool in this clash of five-time European champions. His 30-yard thunderbolt in the 82nd minute that created the current margin looms larger considering Liverpool had two chances for a coveted away goal go begging in a rapid-fire sequence as Roberto Firmino’s attempt was cleared off the line and Mohamed Salah put that clearance off the right post.
That first-leg win registered milestones for both club and player, with Barcelona recording their 500th Champions League goal and Messi scoring his 600th in just 683 matches with the Blaugrana, a mind-being total on its own without the staggering ratio it took to reach that mark — which came 14 years to the day after goal No. 1.
But if there is one side who know about bucking the odds and overcoming a three-goal Champions League deficit, it is Liverpool. The Reds’ most recent European trophy was the 2005 Miracle at Istanbul in which they erased a 3-0 halftime deficit and eventually defeated AC Milan on penalties. It is that spirit and attitude Liverpool must channel to have any hope of returning to the final for the second straight year.
“We won’t expect anything but all we can do is take it down to the last game. We’ve done that so we’ll look forward to next Sunday,” left back Andrew Robertson told the club’s official website after Saturday’s 3-2 win over Newcastle United. “It will be a great occasion regardless but first of all Tuesday [against Barcelona], a hell of a task but if we can get a wee bit of luck then hopefully we will progress.”
“We deserve something at the end of it, we’ve just got to keep going, keep fighting right to the last minute and see what happens,” talisman and midfielder Jordan Henderson added. “It comes from the belief in the squad. We have great belief in each other no matter who plays or who comes on.”
Yet that daunting task took on longer odds this weekend after that gritty win in the Northeast of England. Though Salah scored a goal, he was also forced off in the second half after a collision with Newcastle keeper Martin Dubravka in which his head hit Durbavka’s hip.
The Egypt international crumpled to the pitch and had to be stretchered off, with Klopp confirming Monday his star forward suffered a concussion and would miss this match.
“It’s a concussion [for Salah], so that means he would not even be allowed to play. That’s it, that’s all,” the Liverpool boss said at his press conference. “He feels OK, but it is not good enough from a medical point of view, that’s all. He is desperate and everything, but we cannot do it. That’s it.”
Salah’s absence is the latest issue Klopp must cope with trying to reconfigure his starting XI for this contest. Firmino has been ruled out of this contest after being held out this weekend with a small muscle tear that restricted him to being a reserve at Camp Nou.
Midfielder Naby Keita will also be sidelined after suffering an adductor injury in the first leg. And after opting for experience over youth at right back in the first leg with choosing Joe Gomez over Trent Alexander-Arnold, Klopp may have to turn to the 20-year-old because of his crossing skills to help overturn the massive deficit.
“We are far from giving up, but we are not in a situation where we say, ‘It will happen, 100 per cent’,” Klopp added. “But it’s football and that’s why we give it a try and because of the boys and the character of the boys. Two of the world’s best strikers are not available tomorrow night and we have to score four goals against Barcelona to go through after 90 minutes. It doesn’t make life easier but as long as we have 11 players on the pitch then we will try it and everybody knows that.
“That’s what we want to show, nothing else – just to celebrate the Champions League campaign and give it, either way, a proper finish or another go. That’s pretty much the plan. Just try it and if we can do it then wonderful. Then if not, then fail in the most beautiful way if you want, with a close result. How I said, it’s still a difficult job to do of course.”
Alexander-Arnold had assists on Liverpool’s first two goals — a corner kick centre back Virgil Van Dijk met for an unmarked header and a well-placed cross Salah curled into the lower left corner — as he matched Robertson with 11 assists in league play.
The two wide backs tied the Premier League record for most assists by a defender, and Alexander-Arnold has seven assists in his last seven matches across all competitions. They are both crucial contributors to Liverpool having scored Premier League bests of 22 goals off set pieces and 14 from corner kicks.
“If he would have played against Barcelona, imagine on the right wing it’s a boy and we have Joe Gomez ready and it’s an intense game with another three days later and another five days later, so I make decisions before the game,” Klopp told the Liverpool Echo on Saturday. “It’s not a blow for him by the way, because he’s very, very, very smart. He knows he can’t play all the games and he knows that I don’t make a difference between Newcastle and Barcelona.
“If he makes a difference, it’s not going to change it. For me there’s no difference, that’s 100 percent clear.”
Without Firmino, Daniel Sturridge is likely to get first crack of filling that spot, though Divock Origi could feature as Salah’s potential replacement after bagging the late winner against Newcastle. Another possibility is finding a spot for Xherdan Shaqiri, whose curling cross off a free kick was nodded on by Origi for the winner at St James’ Park. At the center of the offence, though, will be Sadio Mane as the Senegal international looks to continue his blistering form and add to his 11 goals over the last 14 matches in all competitions.
Liverpool can also take hope from a stunning collapse by Barcelona last year, when the Catalan giants squandered a 4-1 first-leg lead in the quarterfinals by losing 3-0 to AS Roma in the second and failing to advances on the away goals rule. Current Reds keeper Alisson was the No. 1 for the Giallorossi for that famous victory, which helped pique Liverpool’s interest in landing the Brazil international this past summer.
The Reds have won five matches at Anfield in all competitions by four or more goals, including a 4-0 mauling of Red Star Belgrade in group play. Liverpool are 9-4-0 in their last 13 Champions League matches in Merseyside and have not conceded there in 367 minutes since Kylian Mbappe briefly pulled PSG level in Liverpool’s 3-2 victory in group play this term.
They also have never lost a European Cup semifinal tie at Anfield, going 8-2-0 and conceding just four goals. Liverpool, though, are only 5-7-5 in their last 17 matches versus Spanish teams at home.
Barcelona, though, have one foot through the door to their first Champions League finals appearance since winning it all in 2015 as they try to keep Ol’ Big Ears in Spain for a sixth consecutive year. Having clinched the La Liga title the weekend prior, coach Ernesto Valverde was able to overturn his entire XI this weekend, though it resulted in a 2-0 defeat to Celta Vigo that ended a 23-match unbeaten run (17-6-0) in all competitions and league play (18-5-0).
Many of Valverde’s first-team regulars did not even make the trip as Messi, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets were among eight starters dropped entirely. There was one injury that will matter for this contest as Ousmane Dembele suffered a torn hamstring six minutes into the match and is out for the rest of the season. Malcolm would likely move up the pecking order among the reserves, with Kevin Prince-Boateng a possible addition to the match-day 18.
“It happened in the first play of the game. He was sprinting and he noticed something wasn’t right. It was obvious something was up so we moved quickly to make the change. We didn’t want to make it worse,” Valverde said after the match according to Reuters.
“It’s a muscle injury. I can’t say too much because we want to see what the medical team say, but it looks like it could be a hamstring tear.”
One personnel move that was a bit surprising was midfielder Rafinha being named to the traveling squad despite still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in November and being listed as “unavailable” to play.
Barcelona are winless in their last five knockout-round road ties since a 2-0 victory at Arsenal in the 2016 round of 16, having lost four of them while being outscored 13-1. The Blaugrana, though, are 5-2-3 in their last 10 visits to England and making their first visit to Anfield since a 1-0 second-leg victory in the round of 16 in 2007 that was not enough to trump Liverpool’s 2-1 win at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona have won just two road legs in semifinal ties (2-2-10), defeating El Clasico rivals Real Madrid in 2011 and AC Milan in 2006.
This match also gives Messi the chance to extend his remarkable run of scoring against England’s “Big Six” sides. The Argentina international has scored 25 goals against the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea since the 2011-12 season, a number that would put him fourth among Premier League-based players behind only Sergio Aguero (43), Jamie Vardy (31) and Eden Hazard (26).
Messi, who is two goals shy of reaching 50 in all competitions for a sixth season with Barca, has 15 in his last 12 matches overall. Secondary to the match but a subplot of note will be the crowd’s reaction to Barcelona striker Philippe Coutinho, who would be playing his first match at Anfield since forcing a move from Liverpool in the middle of last season.
Luis Suarez, who scored the first Barcelona goal in last week’s first leg, will also be making his first appearance at Anfield since he departed following the 2013-14 season when Liverpool finished runners-up to Manchester City — something that could happen again if the reigning Premier League champions win their final two matches.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the other semifinal between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur, currently led 1-0 by Ajax, in the Champions League final at Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid on June 1.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 1, Barcelona 1. (Barcelona advances 4-1 on aggregate).
(Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez photos courtesy FC Barcelona official Twitter account)
(Jurgen Klopp/Mohamed Salah photo courtesy Liverpool FC official Twitter account)