Liverpool did everything but finish in Camp Nou, while Lionel Messi came through in the second half, scoring in both the simplest and most majestic manners to give Barcelona a decisive edge in the Champions League semifinals.
Barcelona was rattled by Liverpool, shaken by the ferocity of its press, made at times to look very uneasy in the second half. And yet it won the first leg of its Champions League semifinal 3-0 and stands on the brink of a fourth final in 11 seasons and a fifth in 14. Only Lionel Messi has played in all five campaigns (although he missed the 2006 final) and he was, yet again, the decisive presence on Wednesday.
His second goal of the night and Barcelona’s third, swept in from a 30-yard free kick after 82 minutes, was his 600th for the club, scored 14 years to the day he tallied his first. It was a goal befitting the landmark, curled over the wall and into the very top corner. But that was just the crushing final blow when the pressure to an extent was off. More significant in terms of the tie was his first, and Barcelona’s second.
It wasn’t so much that Messi scored–he could hardly miss, walking the ball into the empty net after Luis Suarez’s effort had bounced back off the bar. It was the way, after a lengthy spell of Liverpool pressure, he transformed a mildly dangerous position into a chance with an incisive dart. Nobody else spreads such panic with a little shuffle toward goal. Perhaps nobody ever has. When Liverpool, after a night in which it had played superbly for 75 minutes, asks what on earth went wrong, the answer is simple: Messi.
The first half had been thrilling, fizzing with chances at both ends. Although Barcelona went in with a 1-0 lead at the break, there had been more than enough to encourage Liverpool. Then, for long spells of the second half, Barcelona struggled to live with the physicality of Liverpool. At times, it couldn’t get hold of the ball to take the sting out of the game.
If Roberto Firmino had been fit enough to start, perhaps it would have been different for Liverpool. As it was, Georgino Wijnaldum, a splendidly versatile figure who has also played for Liverpool at center back and in central midfield this season, began as a false nine. Although he lacked the natural menace of Firmino and the understanding with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, he filled the role well, one dummy just before the hour mark creating an opening for James Milner. Running in to Salah’s firm cross, though, Milner's first-time shot was straight at Marc-Andre ter Stegen. It was an unfortunate feature of the game for Liverpool that most of its best chances fell to Milner, who is lethal from the penalty spot but less so from anywhere else.
Liverpool had clearly taken steps to ensure that Messi would be crowded every time he began to run with the ball toward the danger zone. To a large extent, it worked early on, and while nobody could ever say the Argentine’s threat had been neutralized, the plan did seem to be working. But the way Liverpool got men around Messi was to play the back four very narrowly, which was perhaps why Joe Gomez, who has spent much of his career at center back, was selected at right back rather than Trent Alexander-Arnold. That left space wide, and Jordi Alba had threatened to exploit it a few times before Suarez's goal came after 26 minutes.
Liverpool had pressed Barcelona very well, but there was no pressure on Arturo Vidal as he spread the ball out to Philippe Coutinho on the left. The former Liverpool man knocked it back to Alba, and his cross was turned in by another former Liverpool man, Suarez, who timed his run perfectly before improvising a deft finish on the slide for his first goal in the Champions League this season. Virgil van Dijk has been a colossus for Liverpool this season, but here he seemed at fault, slow to react as Suarez darted in front of him.
Until the 75th minute, the thought was that 1-0 would be harsh on Liverpool, that it probably deserved more. But then Messi ran at goal, and a series of richochets led to Suarez kneeing the ball against the bar and Messi rolling into the vacated net. Seven minutes later, with a magnificent strike from Messi's left foot, the game was done. As if to confirm it was Barcelona’s night, Firmino, in off the bench, then had an effort cleared off the line and Salah’s follow-up, with the goal gaping, clattered back off the post.
Barcelona went out of the Champions League last season having won the home leg of the quarterfinal by three goals, but then it allowed Roma an away goal and did not have Messi in this sort of form. This Barcelona side is not invincible. It does not have the implacable, unstoppable brilliance of the vintage of 2011 side. It even missed a chance to go 4-0 up when Ousmane Dembele scuffed a sure stoppage-time goal. But 3-0, surely, is a margin that will not be overturned.