Lionel Messi scored two decisive goals, but the story of Liverpool and Barcelona’s Champions League semifinal first leg was the two center forwards.
Barcelona took a commanding 3-0 lead in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal first leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday, two second half Lionel Messi goals turning what had been a relatively even contest into a thrashing from which it’s hard to imagine Liverpool recovering at Anfield on Tuesday.
When the team sheets came out, attention immediately turned to how Jurgen Klopp’s side would line up without Roberto Firmino, only fit enough for a spot on the bench after missing last Friday’s game against Huddersfield with injury. Rather than starting Divock Origi, Daniel Sturridge or Xherdan Shaqiri, Klopp selected four central midfielders.
The consensus seemed to be a lopsided 4-3-3, with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane the primary attackers, and either Naby Keita or Georginio Wijnaldum making up the numbers on the left wing or as a number 10. As it turned out, it was a 4-3-3, but with Wijnaldum playing through the middle, in essentially the same role Firmino normally plays.
This made some sense. Arguably the standout feature of Firmino’s game is the work he gets through off the ball. Wijnaldum, who has played in central midfield since he arrived at Anfield three seasons ago, also excels at pressuring opponents, and keeping possession in tight areas. An unexpected, but understandable choice, then.
Because people spend so much time talking about the way Firmino isn’t like a traditional forward, however, they often overlook how good he is at traditional forward play. His first touch is superb, he can post up center-backs and bring his wide teammates into play and, possibly most important, he’s a danger when he’s in the box, both with and without the ball.
Wijnaldum is … not that. The Dutchman had some decent touches early on, but was mostly anonymous. He had the fewest touches of any Liverpool other than Keita, who was subbed off after 23 minutes. He lost the ball twice. He took zero shots. It’s hard to blame him for that — it’s just not the kind of player he is, but he was a clear downgrade from Firmino.
He was also a clear downgrade from the man playing his position for the other team, Luis Suarez, who opened the scoring and hit the crossbar before Messi tapped in the second, decisive goal. Barcelona are a different team than Liverpool, and they play in a different way, but every team benefits from a center forward who knows his way around the penalty area.
The scoreline was emphatic, but this was far from a one-sided game. Messi, thanks to his remarkable late free-kick, is likely to dominate headlines following this match, but the biggest difference between the two sides was the focal point of the two attacks. Messi had the foil he needed. Salah and Mane did not.