Despite all the attacking talent in action, none of Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Lyon and Barcelona could find the back of the net, sending two Champions League last-16 matchups finely poised heading into their second legs.
Bayern Munich and Barcelona hold the edge after the first legs of their Champions League last-16 ties, but after a night on which there were no goals, nothing is truly certain.
Bayern, so shaky defensively in the Bundesliga of late, produced a disciplined display to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield in their 0-0 draw. Barcelona, meanwhile, was dominant at Lyon after Marc-Ander ter Stegen was forced into a couple of clutch early saves and ultimately had the bulk of the chances, but the visitors were unable to find a way through, with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez not at their finishing best in France in their scoreless draw.
Here are three thoughts on a surprisingly scoreless day across the Champions League:
Disciplined Bayern frustrates Liverpool at Anfield
Last season, Liverpool won the first leg of every Champions League knockout tie by at least three goals. That was never likely against Bayern Munich, for all the doubts about the German champion’s defense and its aging legs, but this was still a disappointment for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Given how poor Liverpool has been away from home in Europe of late, there is no doubt that Bayern is now the favorite to progress, which it will do with a victory. Any scored draw favors Liverpool due to the away-goal tiebreaker, while another scoreless bout would send it to extra time.
At Anfield on a European night, the first task of any away side is to get through the first 20 minutes or so. Bayern, slowing the game down and playing with caution, was happy to do that, although the game quickly settled into a weird pattern. Both sides seemed anxious with the result that the game took on a bizarre shape. Both insisted on passing out from the back, and both gave it away repeatedly, so for much of the first half the ball wasn’t in the central third of the pitch. Absences, perhaps–Virgil van Dijk for Liverpool, Jerome Boateng for Bayern–added to sense of edginess.
Such chances as there were tended not to be created but to bobble into being. Sadio Mane hooked a bicycle kick wide after badly scuffed a ball that had broken to him after a blocked Naby Keita shot, giving him space to turn and shoot from eight yards out.
On the other end, a weak pass from Alisson–neither goalkeeper, despite his reputation, seemed entirely comfortable–gifted a chance to Kingsley Coman, who drove wide.
The game took on a more normal shape after the break, but Liverpool was largely frustrated by Bayern’s discipline, the three midfielders sitting deep, protecting the two central defenders, while David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich curtailed their attacking instincts. And on the odd occasion Liverpool was able to break, its passing was just a little off, most notably when Mane spurned two opportunities to play in Andy Robertson in the same move. None of Liverpool's fabled front three, in truth, seemed anywhere near his best.
The only black mark for Bayern on a broadly excellent night for Niko Kovac's side was the yellow card that will keep Kimmich out of the second leg.
Henderson has an understated, excellent day
Jordan Henderson is one of those players who is very easy to criticize. He has, as Alex Ferguson famously observed, an awkward running style. There is not much grace to his play. Such matters are relative, but, by comparison with some of his teammates, he is not naturally gifted, his worth coming from his energy, his determination and his commitment to learn.
There is a reason that he is Liverpool's captain. Henderson is level-headed and, certainly when playing well, authoritative. Van Dijk, even when he doesn’t have the armband, often seems like the de facto leader on the pitch. Fabinho did well in the Dutchman’s absence, making a number of well-timed tackles, but he does not guide the side from the back in the way Van Dijk does.
Liverpool was thankful, then, for Henderson, who protected a makeshift back four while demonstrating a range of passing his critics would claim is beyond him. One delightful floated pass early on almost played in Mohamed Salah for the opener and, with Bayern often sitting deep out of possession, it was down to Henderson, finding space in the curiously uncongested midfield, to try to find angles to initiate attacks. On a night when others faltered, he at least kept things together.
Messi, Barcelona misfire in Lyon
The problem with being Messi is that everybody expects perfection all the time.
He had a strange game over the weekend in the 1-0 win over Real Valladolid, when he had 12 shots himself and set up eight shooting chances for others, thus directly contributing to all 20 shots Barcelona had. And yet the sense then was that he was also a little sluggish and gave the ball away frequently.
It was a similar story at Lyon on Tuesday: the stats show six shots and four key passes, but this was not Messi at his brilliant best.
Combine that with Lyon’s propensity for getting good results against the biggest sides–beating Paris Saint-Germain in the league and taking four points off Manchester City in the group stage–and the outcome was a thoroughly deserved draw for the French side, which, like Liverpool, knows that a scored draw in the second leg will take it through.