Liverpool can play on Barcelona's weaknesses tonight, but attempting to stop Lionel could get Messi
Focus now on Liverpool after Spurs crash to a slender defeat
Barcelona vs Liverpool, at the Nou Camp, semi-final of the Champions League, it doesn't get much better than this. The stage is set for an exhilarating 90 minutes of football this evening, after last night's other semi-final between Tottenham and Ajax flattered to deceive.
The exciting, young, free-flowing Dutch outfit took the game to Spurs in the first half, gaining an early advantage through Donny van de Beek. Ajax dominated proceedings throughout the opening 45 minutes, and Tottenham seemed to just let them.
Without two of their most influential players - the injured Harry Kane and suspended Son Heung-min - the North Londoners offered little in the way of reply in the final third, but did look much better after the break, presumably after a huge bollocking from Mauricio Pochettino.
Spurs travel to the Johan Cruyff Arena next Wednesday with it all to do, but won't be ruling out a comeback after witnessing Ajax's second half display at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last night, especially with the returning Son available for the return leg.
With last night's match now done and dusted, focus turns to Liverpool's bout with Barcelona; it's the big one, the one everyone's been waiting for. Tonight's clash at the Camp Nou promises to be a cracker, with two heavily attack-minded sides which possess a plethora of quality battling it out for the biggest prize in knockout club football - a spot in the Champions League final.
Attack vs. Attack
This evening's match sees two of Europe's fiercest attacking sides face each other, which should result in an extremely open encounter with plenty of chances.
With players like Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Lionel Messi and Ousmane Dembele all expected to feature from the outset, it'll be a case of attack vs attack. But who will prevail after 90 minutes, gaining themselves a foothold in the fixture, and who will ultimately have it all left to do next week at Anfield?
Two former Liverpool players will also face their former team in the form of Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho - both of whom will be looking to prove a point against their previous employers under the lights in Catalonia. Coutinho hasn't enjoyed the best of starts to life in Spain, with even his own fans seemingly turning against him after a string of lacklustre performances at the Camp Nou.
However, the 26-year-old did put in an impressive display against Manchester United in the quarter-finals, curling home a trademark beauty from outside the area to put Barca three goals to the good against the Red Devils, and Liverpool will be all too aware of the quality he possesses in that all-important final third.
Clean sheet puts Reds in the ascendancy
The main aim for Liverpool this evening is to keep a clean sheet - if they can do that then they've got every chance of beating the Catalans at Anfield in a week's time. Of course, this is easier said than done, but unlike the Liverpool of recent times, this season they actually have a solid defence to rely on.
Three of the defenders included in this season's PFA Team of the Year play for Liverpool - Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson and Virgil van Dijk, with the latter scooping the coveted Player of the Season award last week - the first time a defender has won it since John Terry in 2005. Combined, Liverpool's defence have conceded just 20 goals in the Premier League this season - fewer than any club in the whole division, even Manchester City.
Klopp's defensive unit have been a formidable force this term, and though plaudits deservedly go to their front three each week, their backline will have to be the ones on song tonight to ensure Barcelona aren't allowed a foothold in the game - if they do, then the task suddenly becomes a lot trickier.
Then again, with the Catalans looking far less assured at the back as they have in recent years, there is a huge opportunity for the Reds' dynamic front three to reek their own havoc this evening.
Weirdly, the Champions League will actually come as a welcome distraction for Liverpool, who have been given absolutely no respite in their assault on the Premier League this season. It sounds ludicrous to say, but this two-legged dual with Barcelona actually brings with it less pressure than the forthcoming league games against Newcastle and Wolves.
You see, the Premier League remains the priority for Liverpool, as they hunt for their first title win in 30 years, and as good as success in the UCL is, they reached the final last term and have won it in the last 20 years. Reaching the final for the second consecutive season, in ultimate style by beating a side like Barca would obviously be a huge coup, but it still plays second-fiddle to the league due to their intense, season-long rivalry with City this time around.
Things are different now, Messi has evolved
The main thing on Liverpool's mind tonight is, of course, Lionel Messi. Barcelona's catalyst - the footballer everybody wants to play with but nobody wants to play against. The Argentine magician will be ready for a sea of red shirts glued to his every move, ready for either Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum or Jordan Henderson to follow him around like a shadow for 90 minutes; ready to exploit any gap he can find in Liverpool's midfield.
The last time these two European heavyweights met at the Camp Nou was in 2007, where goals from Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise saw the Reds run out as 2-1 winners; from that fateful evening, only one player still remains - Messi.
Alvaro Arbeloa was the man tasked with keeping the then-20-year-old quiet that night, deployed at left-back despite being right-footed due to the fact that he had already played against Messi for Deportivo La Coruna that very season.
Arbeloa knew that whenever Messi got the ball on the right hand side, he would look to cut in on his favoured left foot, so stayed one step ahead of the rising star, able to tackle him with his stronger right foot whenever he did dribble the ball infield. It worked, Messi stayed quiet and more importantly, didn't score.
Tonight, though, things are different. Not only has Lionel Messi got a lot better and even smarter on the ball, but he now plays in a more central position behind the striker, floating between the lines. The 31-year-old spends less time 'cutting in' like he did in his earlier days, and more time picking it up in central positions before driving at defences head on, changing which side he leads with every time, like a bull to a red rag.
Once again, the Atomic Flea finds himself in phenomenal form this term, scoring 34 goals in La Liga and a further 10 in the Champions League - the most out of anyone in each competition. Messi put in a scintillating display against Lyon in February's last-16 clash at the Camp Nou, scoring a brace as Barcelona thrashed the Frenchmen 5-0, and while he was kept quiet against Manchester United at Old Trafford last month, was once again the man of the match when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men came to visit for the return leg two weeks later.
It's likely Fabinho will be tasked with keeping Messi quiet this evening, and with his excellent break-up play and ability to close players down quickly considered, there is a feeling that Jurgen Klopp's side could enjoy some success this evening, as it's clear that Barcelona aren't the team they once where without the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Neymar etc. They still have an abundance of quality, though, and with Messi firing on all cylinders, it is simply impossible to rule out a dominant display from the Spaniards in their own backyard.
When asked about whether or not his team should focus on Messi tonight, Jurgen Klopp replied: "We should, in a lot of moments, but if we do it all the time then there are ten world class players around him who will decide the game easily."
The German is all too aware that any slip-up or slight negligence will cost his side dearly tonight, but also knows that Messi alone could flip the game on its head in an instance. As are we, the excited viewer, just like kids at Christmas. Here's hoping it's not a massive let down, that would really upset us.
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