Lionel Messi put Barcelona on the verge of the Champions League final with a devastating double in a 3-0 home win over Liverpool in the first leg of their last-four clash on Wednesday, taking his goal tally for the Catalans to 600.
The Argentine’s milestone goal was a moment of brilliance as he curled a dazzling free kick into the top corner from distance to add gloss to a scoreline that did not reflect the balance of play.
Yet whereas Barcelona took their chances with clinical precision, Liverpool wasted a string of opportunities that fell their way.
Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez reminded the visitors of his superb finishing by opening the scoring in the 26th minute of a tense and finely-balanced first half at the Nou Camp, darting between two Liverpool defenders to divert Jordi Alba’s cross into the net.
Barca captain Messi scored the all-important second goal of the night in the 75th minute, chesting the ball down on the rebound and dribbling it over the line after Suarez had hammered the crossbar with a shot with his knee.
The Argentine then added to Barca’s already huge advantage to take into next Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield by smashing home his sizzling free kick in the 82nd minute.
“Four goals would have been better than three but this is a very good result,” Messi told reporters.
“We know that the tie isn’t over, Anfield is a very difficult place to go but we’re happy with the super game we played tonight. They clearly wanted to score because an away goal means a lot but they didn’t and we have a great advantage.”
Liverpool, who were beaten 3-1 in last year’s final by Real Madrid, played far better than the scoreline suggested, carving out a number of clear chances but spurning them all.
Barca’s South American duo of Suarez and Messi showed little mercy whenever they sniffed out a chance and condemned Jurgen Klopp’s side to their first defeat in any competition since January with some ruthless finishing.
Klopp praised his side’s performance but he was not optimistic about the likelihood of a miraculous turnaround.
“I was completely happy with how we played, we played between the lines, we had chances and caused them a lot of problems,” the German told a news conference.
“If you lose away it’s not a massive problem as long as you scored a goal but we didn’t score that goal and that makes things a lot harder. We have a chance because it’s football but we had a much bigger chance before tonight.”
Suarez spared little thought for his former employers following his eventful three-and-a-half-year stay on Merseyside, as he celebrated his opening strike with relish, racing behind the goal and wagging his finger at the delighted Barca fans.
Sadio Mane squandered a glorious chance to level for the Premier League side later in the first half but scooped the ball over the bar, while James
Milner and Mohamed Salah were both denied by Barca’s excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen later on.
Klopp’s side had done an impressive job of shackling Barca’s all-time top scorer Messi, but there was little they could do when the Argentine pounced on the loose ball after Suarez had hit the crossbar.
Messi sparked further celebrations at a packed Nou Camp with another outstanding free kick, yet the drama in this blockbuster European encounter was far from over.
Liverpool again went agonisingly close to snatching an away goal as Barca’s Ivan Rakitic scrambled the ball off the goalline only to find the feet of Salah, who somehow smashed the rebound against the near post.
Barca could have seized an even bigger advantage in the tie with two golden chances as Liverpool tired that fell to substitute Ousmane Dembele, but the Frenchman missed the target the first time then shot straight into the hands of goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
Haunted by Rome memories, Barca taking nothing for granted
Coach Ernesto Valverde said his side’s place in the competition’s final was far from assured. Valverde pointed to his team’s sensational exit from last year’s competition to AS Roma after a 4-1 cushion from the first leg and said they would be taking nothing for granted in Tuesday’s return game at Anfield.
“We won’t go there with precautions but experience must count for something,” said Valverde, whose side exited last year’s competition after losing 3-0 at Roma.
“We saw how Liverpool manage games and the pace with which they play, and we cannot forget that we can’t afford to feel extra confident. The tie is still open and we haven’t got through yet.”
Liverpool had scored seven goals in their last two Champions League away games against Bayern Munich and Porto and despite falling behind to a strike from their former forward Suarez, they showed huge ambition in attack.
“We cannot lie, it’s always a good result when you win and your opponent doesn’t score, but we suffered, there are still 90 minutes to go and while we were able to score they could have done so too,” Valverde added.
“They were better than us for some spells and we know what awaits us over there.
“I see a team that has the ability to make any team suffer. Last year we had a three-goal advantage and we were knocked out. We’ve picked up a great result but the tie isn’t over.”
Barca midfielder Arturo Vidal also expects Liverpool to put up a fight at Anfield.
“We had to suffer a lot tonight and we coped well with it but there are still 90 minutes to go and we have to finish the job over there,” the Chilean said.
“We have to respect Liverpool a lot because they are a great team and we’re convinced that things will be much harder over at their place than tonight.”
Liverpool could not have played much better – Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said his team could not have played much better despite their 3-0 loss. “Football is like this. It is about scoring goals and they scored three and we scored none but the performance was really good, the boys played a super game to be honest but against a side like Barcelona, a few moments are enough to give them the opportunity,” Klopp said.
“What can I say? I am really happy with the performance but of course not too happy with the result, we have to take that, that’s football and we know that. You don’t get grades, only a hard result and we have to accept that.”
Klopp’s side had their chances too with James Milner having two shots saved and Mohamed Salah striking the post. “That is how it is. How we created the moments was outstanding, how we caused them problems was outstanding, we controlled the game so well,” Klopp said.
“We went in at halftime, analysed the half, told the boys what we can do better and what have to do it again. I don’t know if we can play it much better to be honest,” he said.
“But then you have that one moment, the ball hits the crossbar….. and then Messi is there for an easy goal. Then a wonder strike again, that is how it is. That ball was obviously unsaveable,” Klopp added.
“Barcelona showed they had more experience. We saw that in the moments when they stopped our rhythm, going down, but that’s part of the game,” the German said.
Liverpool must now try to turn the game around at Anfield, an even harder task without an away goal.
“3-0 is not the easiest result but we have another game (second leg) and our people will be there,” he said.