Barcelona and Lionel Messi crush Liverpool’s Champions League hopes

When your team is about to face Barcelona there is a question that is always asked of the opposing manager: “How do you stop Lionel Messi?”

For 74 minutes of the first leg of its Champions League semifinal on Wednesday, Liverpool appeared to have found an answer.

For much of the night, Messi was on the periphery of the contest, struggling to find a way to make an impact on a highly charged contest at the Camp Nou.

And yet, in seven second-half minutes, it all changed. Two goals from the magician, his 599th and 600th for the club, ensured Barcelona claimed a 3-0 victory and all but ended Liverpool’s hopes of making a second successive final.

Messi’s first may have been fortuitous, but his second, an exquisite free kick that defied belief, was pure box office.

The scoreline was cruel on Liverpool, which had chances to score throughout the contest, but was ultimately made to pay the price for its profligacy in front of goal.

Even at 3-0 down, Liverpool had chances with Roberto Firmino’s effort hacked off the line and Mohamed Salah striking the rebound against the post.

But this was not Liverpool’s night. Instead, it belonged to Messi. The Argentine, whose goal guaranteed Barcelona’s eighth domestic title in 11 years last weekend, has now scored 48 times in 46 appearances. Few would be willing to bet against him reaching 50 before the end of the season.

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Suarez ends drought

And yet, for all the the talk about Messi, it was a more familiar figure who inflicted the first blow. Luis Suarez, once of Liverpool, had not scored in the Champions League all season, and so, rather predictably, chose this contest to end his drought.

Jordi Alba found space on the left and his exquisite pass split the Liverpool defense wide open, allowing Suarez to ghost through and send a fine finish into the far corner.

It was refreshing to see Suarez ignore the convention of players refusing to celebrate after scoring against their former club. Such a goal deserved a celebration, and Suarez was keen to ensure everybody was aware of his delight.

Liverpool had, until then, appeared comfortable against the movement of Messi, Suarez, and another of its former players, Philippe Coutinho. Indeed, it should have drawn level before the interval through the in-form Sadio Mane.

Few players have been as impressive in front of goal as Mane in recent months, the forward having scored 24 goals in all competitions this season. So when Jordan Henderson’s inch perfect through ball fell into Mane’s path, it was perhaps even more surprising that the Senegalese could only lift the ball over the crossbar when most would have expected the net to bulge.

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It was the kind of opportunity Liverpool needed to take in a game of such magnitude. History suggested that the visiting side would need to be clinical in front of goal given Barcelona’s astonishing home record in the competition of 31 home games without defeat.

Liverpool, though, persevered. First, James Milner’s fierce drive was tipped away by Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen. The German then produced an even better save, this time turning Salah’s effort behind after the Liverpool forward had fired towards goal.

Suddenly, Barcelona, which had seemed so confident in the first half, began to appear vulnerable. Liverpool, playing with the confidence that has been so evident throughout its attempt to win a first domestic title since 1990, looked a far more dangerous proposition as it dominated possession.

That domination should have yielded a far greater reward just before the hour mark when the visiting side scythed Barcelona wide open only for Milner to fire straight at the goalkeeper when he appeared certain to score.

Messi magic

It was a miss that Liverpool would rue and, of course, it was Messi who administered the pain.

The Argentine, on the periphery for much of the contest, drove towards goal before his pass was deflected into the path of Suarez, whose effort hit the crossbar before rebounding into the path of Messi to tap home.

Seven minutes later, there was more pain for Liverpool. Messi, seemingly unperturbed after being upended in rather agricultural fashion by Fabinho some 35 yards from goal, produced an astonishing effort by curling the ball past the wall and beyond the reach of Alisson into the top corner.

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It was a moment that made you sit bolt upright and exhale. At 31, many had thought Messi’s best days may already be behind him, and yet, at the tensest of moments, when history beckons, he arrives with impeccable timing.

For Barcelona, a place in the Champions League final is all but there for the taking. For Messi, scorer of his 600th goal for the club, more history surely awaits.