Anfield has been transformed from an amphitheatre of underachievement into a fortress of fortitude under the management of Jurgen Klopp, though Liverpool will need a Merseyside miracle of unprecedented magnitude to beat Barcelona this evening.
Liverpool can count on every note of the crowd’s notoriously vociferous support against the La Liga champions tonight, however, it will take more than noise to overturn the massive 0-3 Champions League semi-final first leg lead held by the Catalonian side.
Shorn of two thirds of their attacking trio of terror, Liverpool are tasked with finding a way to comprehensively outscore their opponents with a severely blunted forward line, but though their chances seem slim, football (and the Champions League in particular) has a habit of defying the odds and of circumventing logic.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important individual duels that could play a key role in deciding the outcome of Liverpool’s compelling second leg tussle with Barcelona.
Andrew Robertson vs Lionel Messi
Liverpool left-back Andrew Robertson witnessed first-hand the world class match-defining qualities of Barcelona’s indomitable attacker Lionel Messi last week.
Messi registered an uncharacteristically low total of just 4 attempts (the tournament’s leading scorer has averaged 5.4 shots on goal per Champions League fixture this season, 1.8 of which were on target) on goal during the 90 minutes at Camp Nou, though the Argentinean still finished the game with 2 crucial goals.
The 31-year old’s ball-carrying expertise proved just as difficult to cope with however, and Messi completed 9 dribbles in total against a Liverpool defence that were often left with limbs like pretzels in the winger’s wake.
With Messi’s penchant for leaving his right-hand side berth and drifting into pockets of space in more central areas, Robertson will need plenty of assistance from the players around him to combat the Argentine’s creative forays.
Messi could discover however, that there are more of those spaces to exploit against a Liverpool team that will need to press for goals from the first whistle this evening, making him great value at 8/11 with bet365 to have over 1.5 shots on target.
Divock Origi vs Gerard Pique
Barcelona’s defence has often carried a reputation for being less than cementitious, however this season at least, that notoriety is largely undeserved.
Before a severely weakened Barcelona lost 2-0 at Celta Vigo at the weekend, the club had gone 8 matches without conceding a single goal, in a sequence of fixtures that included games against Atletico Madrid, Man Utd and Liverpool. In the Champions League, Barca managed to keep an impressive 6 clean sheets in 11 games to date, conceding just once in a further 4 of those contests.
Defensive lynchpin Gerard Pique is the club’s most trusted lieutenant in their own third, and the 32-year old’s ability to snuff out danger before it develops makes him one of the best players in the world in his position.
Pique’s superb reading of the game is reflected in his stats for the season, and the highly decorated centre half has made over 1 tackle in just 3 of his 10 Champions League appearances this season so far.
With Roberto Firmino on the sidelines for Liverpool, Belgian striker Divock Origi has been tipped to occupy a central attacking role this evening, in what would be just his second Champions League start of the season.
Although Origi has chipped in with some crucial goals for Liverpool in the Premier League this term, replicating that output in the semi-final of the Champions League could be prove a struggle for the raw 24-year old.
With that considered, we think Pique’s experience will allow him to deal with Origi relatively comfortably, and that in turn makes bet365’s 6/4 odds on the defender making under 1.5 tackles a generous looking price.
Xherdan Shaqiri vs Jordi Alba
Like Origi, winger Xherdan Shaqiri has the unenviable task of replacing one of Liverpool’s star forwards against Barcelona this evening – should the Swiss international be selected to start by Jurgen Klopp.
Having played and performed well at major international tournaments for Switzerland, and featured in games of significance for former club Bayern Munich, being thrown in at the deep end in a Champions League semi-final is unlikely to phase Shaqiri.
But while his attacking talent and technical skills are undeniable, Shaqiri’s appetite for chasing back and doing the dirty defensive work is often called into question.
Barcelona left-back Jordi Alba provides buckets of attacking thrust down his flank for the Catalonian giants, and Shaqiri could find himself in plenty of uncomfortable and unfamiliar defensive areas this evening.
The extra defensive workload thrust upon Shaqiri by Alba could well limited his effectiveness at the other end of the pitch, and that makes him an interesting price at 6/5 with bet365 to have under 1.5 shots against Barcelona.
Jordan Henderson vs Sergio Busquets
Jordan Henderson’s relentless capacity for running and enthusiasm for the fight will be invaluable for Liverpool tonight if they are to stand any chance of closing the 3-goal chasm between them and Barcelona at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp chose not to start the 28-year old at Camp Nou last week, though an injury to Naby Keita that night allowed Henderson to enter the fray after 25-minutes.
With the groin injury Keita picked up in Spain still keeping him on the sidelines, Henderson looks certain to make the cut for the second leg.
The England international will find himself in close proximity to his Barcelona midfield counterpart Sergio Busquets. Barca’s anchorman has been the hardest biting midfielder in Los Cules’ ranks in the Champions League this season, making an average of 3.4 tackles per game on the continent.
Busquets will have to be at his flow disrupting best to beat back the waves of Liverpool advances this evening, making him a cracking price at 11/10 with bet365 to make over 3.5 tackles.
Fabinho vs Ivan Rakitic
Brazilian holding midfielder Fabinho had an evening to forget in Liverpool’s 0-3 reverse at Barcelona in the teams’ Champions League semif-final first leg last week.
The 25-year old was inadvertently, heavily involved in the last 2 of Barcelona’s 3 goals on the night, unluckily setting up Lionel Messi’s first with a tackle at the edge of the box, before giving away the foul that allowed the Argentine to slam home his second from the resulting free kick just 7 minutes later.
Fabinho also won just 2 or 25% of the 8 tackles he attempted against Barcelona, and the destroyer was dribbled past on 6 separate occasions by his fleet-footed antagonists.
A huge improvement in performance is needed from Fabinho this evening, and as one of his prime tasks, the Brazilian will hope to do a better job of limiting the influence of Barca’s Ivan Rakitic.
The Croatian midfielder’s simple use of the ball and no-nonsense passing style often means that his impact is undervalued, though it’s telling that the 31-year old has started all 11 Champions League matches for his team this season.
It’s interesting to note that only Sergio Busquets can better Rakitic’s numbers for passes attempted (863), passes completed (801) and distance covered (111km) in the competition this season.
Fabinho struggled to cope with Rakitic and his Barca teammates’ dynamism last week, and the beleaguered Brazilian ended up conceding a game-high 4 free-kicks during the contest, picking up a yellow card in the process.
We’re tipping the former Monaco star to struggle against the Barcelona midfield swarms again in the return fixture, making him a cracking price at 15/8 with bet365 to be booked against the La Liga champions for a second time.