Mark Critchley: 'Jurgen Klopp’s optimism finally dimmed with Liverpool lacking key ingredient to salvage hope at the Nou Camp'
Jurgen Klopp’s favourite thing about football is that within the confines of a 90-minute match, anything can happen. Through tactical intelligence and application, the little guy can beat the big guy. And yet, even this eternal optimist was reduced to a glass-half-empty type by events at the Camp Nou on Wednesday night.
Do Liverpool still have a chance of reaching the Champions League final for the second successive season? Yes, but it is a slender one. Their opponents, meanwhile, do not only have a three-goal advantage to take into next Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield. They also have Lionel Messi.
“What can I say? It’s Barcelona,” Klopp sighed, having watched Messi score twice in the final quarter-of-an-hour to secure a 3-0 win and make Liverpool’s task in second-leg far less manageable. “If they can play for counter-attacks, that doesn’t help us a lot. That’s difficult to avoid. Because it’s football we should still try, but this didn’t make our lives easier.”
It was refreshing, too, that for once a manager on the wrong end of a hiding in this competition did not reach for the usual platitudes. “It’s not a night for being mealy-mouthy and saying that was exactly what we wanted. ‘It’s half-time.’ ‘Score an early goal’ and all that shit,” he said. “It will be another really difficult game.”
There is hope. Those paying attention to the knockout stages of the Champions League in recent years will know that a three-goal lead is far from safe. It is likely Barcelona’s advantage will be whittled down at Anfield, which will have to deliver on its time-honoured reputation for rising to these grand European occasions.
Liverpool are missing one key ingredient though, as Klopp knows too well. “The Champions League now is like this: if you lose away it’s not a massive problem. It can happen as long as you score a goal,” he said. He was right. Unless you are playing Paris Saint-Germain, overturning a lead of three goals or more without scoring away from home is unheard of. “That’s the problem. That makes our life not easy, to be honest.”
On the two previous occasions that a team has overturned a three-goal deficit, they had an away goal to rely on. Deportivo la Coruna ultimately did not need it when recovering from a 4-1 defeat to progress 5-4 on aggregate in 2003-04 quarter-finals, though it powered their charge and made Milan vulnerable from the outset.
Scoring at the Camp Nou proved decisive, meanwhile, for Roma. Much will be said and written over the next few days about the fracaso - Barcelona’s exit at the quarter-final stage last year, winning 4-1 at home, losing 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. It is clear, incontrovertible evidence that this very side could lose it from here and against a far better team than Roma.
But then there is the fact that Ernesto Valverde’s side have only lost twice in league and European football combined since that night in the Eternal City. They have scored in all but four of their games in all competitions this season. La Liga was won at the weekend and won at a canter, with three rounds of fixtures to spare. The Copa del Rey should follow. This competition – “the beautiful cup”, Messi called it – is now their primary focus.
And a little more than a year on from the Stadio Olimpico, Liverpool’s position is of course even more inferior than Roma’s. A 3-0 victory in the second leg will only mean another half hour of attempting to shut out Messi. He and his team-mates have scored 139 goals this season. Just one inside 90 or 120 minutes at Anfield will surely be enough to secure a place in the Madrid final.
Liverpool played well on Wednesday night. Their performance merited a result that made the second leg competitive, at the very least. If Mohamed Salah’s late strike had deflected in off the inside of the post rather rebounding off it, then maybe the scoreline would be a truer reflection of the balance of play. Maybe the odds of Barcelona progressing would be only three-fifths in their favour, rather than nine-tenths or more.
But as it stands, to be optimistic would be unrealistic. An extraordinary season for Liverpool at home and abroad will now end without any silverware, unless either Manchester City stumble in their final two Premier League games or Anfield witnesses its finest of European nights. In Klopp’s world, there is always a chance, but it seemed late last night that even he was struggling to believe that.