Liverpool were the better team. That might feel impossible after a game that saw Lionel Messi ruin the nights of millions of already angry Scousers, but it’s true. Through 90 minutes at a hostile Camp Nou, Liverpool shook off a hesitant start and brought the game to the Spanish champions, keeping Barcelona off the front foot for the majority of the match. And yet, because Barcelona have Messi and Liverpool do not, the Reds must now return home for the second leg with an almost certainly catastrophic 3-0 deficit.
Liverpool’s problems were mostly contained within Barcelona’s third of the field. There, time and again, the English side’s finishing failed them. That Liverpool went scoreless on the night, after looking so good against the most difficult foe in European soccer (Barcelona at home), is a shame. That this happened in a season where they have scored 124 goals across all competitions almost beggars belief.
The biggest miss of the night came off the foot of the Pool Boys’ best player. In the 84th minute, already down 3-0 thanks to some Messi magic, Mohamed Salah found himself with the ball at his feet, an open net in front of him, and a crucial away goal hanging in the balance. Going back home down 3-1 wouldn’t have been particularly comfortable, but stealing an away goal had to be Liverpool’s only priority after Messi’s exquisite free kick in the 82nd minute. With almost the first kick of the ball after Barça’s third goal, Liverpool pushed forward trying to do just that. The Reds pressed their way into a golden chance that fell to Salah, the Premier League’s leading scorer, who only needed to smash the ball into a keeper-free net from six yards out to give his team some hope. Even on his weaker right foot, this should’ve been a gimme. Instead, Salah’s shot cruelly hit the post:
It would be unfair to lay all the blame for the result on Salah. He was great yesterday, succeeding on seven of his 10 take-ons, completing the game’s second most attacking third passes, and terrorizing Clément Lenglet so thoroughly that the Frenchman’s sleep will surely be haunted by nightmares of a wild-eyed Salah chasing after him. But Salah’s critical miss will stand out if Liverpool fail to advance, because an away goal would’ve been massive.
Sadio Mané deserves at least as much of the blame, though he too was very good generally and repeatedly burned the tires off of Barça right back Sergi Roberto. In the 35th minute, Mané ran past two Barcelona defenders to latch onto a beautiful ball from Jordan Henderson, only to send his first-time shot flying way over the Barcelona goal:
Liverpool’s worst perpetrator of crimes against finishing last night was utility man James Milner. He had two glorious chances to blast one of his trademark right foot bombs past Marc-André ter Stegen (who demonstrated on the night why he’s either the best or second best goalie in the world, depending on how you feel about Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak), but both times, the oldest Liverpool player failed to score. The more demoralizing of the two was by no means an easy opportunity, but Liverpool’s best passing (and dummying) sequence of the game deserved more than a blast straight at ter Stegen:
Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have thrived in attack, pressing when they lose the ball so they can get back to sieging opponents’ penalty areas. That plan was pretty much perfectly executed on Wednesday, even with the absence of Roberto Firmino from the starting XI (the dinged-up forward came on in the 79th minute as a substitute, with Liverpool already down 2-0). For most of the game, Liverpool were actually winning the possession battle against Europe’s most possession-obsessed club (Liverpool finished with 53% on the night), and Barcelona’s old and slow midfield was at times badly outmatched. (If you needed a reason for why Barca dropped so much money on Ajax wonderkid Frenkie de Jong, watching Sergio Busquets fail to contain Liverpool’s midfield will serve quite nicely.)
But soccer is a game with high variability and low scoring, and Liverpool failed to capitalize on their chances while Barcelona were ruthlessly efficient with their own. Now, Liverpool must regroup and return to their Merseyside fortress on Tuesday, hoping to channel another famous 3-0 comeback and fight their way into what would be a second consecutive Champions League final. If they come up short, it won’t be because they were outmatched or tactically overrun; it will be because soccer is cruel, and sometimes one of the world’s best scorers hits the post instead of the back of the net, and all you can do is shrug and try to do better next time.