Jurgen Klopp said Camp Nou was no temple, but Liverpool’s coach watched nearly 100,000 devout followers bow before their god as Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona to a 3-0 win on Wednesday, leaving the Catalans with one foot in the Champions League final.
The best player on the planet, in the history of football, casually decided a match which had been balanced on a knife-edge, notching two goals to whisk the semi-final first leg out of the bold visitors' hands.
Luis Suarez’s opening goal saw Barcelona strike the first blow but the Catalans at times were praying for salvation as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane drove the hosts back.
And Messi delivered it, again, the Argentine popping up in the right place at the right time to stroke home the second, before dispatching a stunning free-kick into the one per cent of the goal Alisson could not cover for Barcelona’s third.
It was Messi’s 600th goal for the club in all competitions, but Barcelona’s deity has raced past so many milestones that they now seem meaningless.
From the start, the No.10 was playing at 100 per cent, well-rested over the past couple of weeks, looking for blood.
The Champions League is his dream and what this god wants, this god gets.
Messi’s faithful disciple Suarez sent Barcelona on their way, with the Uruguayan bordering on the demented at times on a visual level, as keen to get his hands on the trophy again as Messi.
“Once we’re playing there’ll be no friendship, no mates, none of those lovely memories,” Suarez said last week. And so it proved.
Suarez bit the hand which used to feed him and with such relish.
The Uruguayan used the shark-like instinct he possesses to time his run to perfection, meeting Jordi Alba’s supremely weighted cross and diverting the ball past Alisson to send Barcelona ahead.Getty
It was a goal of immense quality yet the first Suarez has scored in the Champions League since April 2018 – which was, coincidentally, also against Alisson, then playing for Roma.
Unsurprisingly, Suarez celebrated wildly, as he pledged he would, not offering a muted reaction against his former side like so many cookie-cutter footballers do.
After scoring, Barcelona wanted the game to simmer down a little. While they were complicit in the intense first half hour, they became unwilling passengers after that as Liverpool kept flying at them.
Mane was finding and exploiting the gap between Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto so regularly that the two had an on-pitch discussion about how to try and stop him.
The best chance of the half for Liverpool fell to the Senegalese but he scooped over a sublime Jordan Henderson pass when he really should have scored, with Barcelona’s defence left looking relieved.
Ernesto Valverde acted promptly in the second half to try to block the flying winger. Off came Philippe Coutinho, who started reasonably but quickly went downhill and was jeered by his own fans again, against his old club, and on came Nelson Semedo.
Doubling up on the right flank with Sergi Roberto pushed forward into midfield but still focused on defending against Mane, Barca closed Mane out.
It freed Arturo Vidal to come over to Barcelona’s left and do a similar job on Salah, aiding Jordi Alba, who had his hands full with the Egyptian.
Liverpool’s wingers are both excellent players in their own right and fine goalscorers too, but neither can be compared to Messi, as this night so clearly proved.
Barcelona’s Champions League gameplan stems from the fact that with their captain up front, they can play worse than their opponents and still win, Messi essentially serving as their rip-cord.
This was the most important game in the city since the 2015 semi-final first leg against Bayern Munich, and like in that game, Messi arrived in the decisive stages to work his magic.
The first was a simple finish after Suarez hit the bar but the second was an act of god, a thunderbolt free-kick launched into the top corner to leave Messi’s few remaining doubters praying for forgiveness for ever questioning him.
Profligacy from Suarez and Ousmane Dembele in the final stages denied Barcelona a fourth as the game descended into madness after Messi had blown everybody’s minds, in pursuit of his Champions League dream.
In this form, who would bet against him making it a reality?