After progressing to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2015, Barcelona, as the competition’s only remaining current league champions, appear to be strong contenders to take their crown back after three years of domination from their rivals, Real Madrid.
After Madrid crashed out early to the impressive Ajax and strong contenders Juventus and Manchester City were eliminated in the following round, Barcelona will fancy their chances of knocking Liverpool out and going on to claim the trophy – but does their current team have what it takes to match the successes of 2009, 2011 and 2015?
Naturally, a lot will depend on Messi, but even with him and Suarez fit and firing up front, Barcelona’s potential defensive frailties could expose them, especially against what is an extremely dangerous Liverpool side with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah leading the line.
Many Barça fans claim that this season has been 32 year-old Gerard Piqué’s best for the club, and despite Samuel Umtiti’s long term injury, they have coped extremely well with summer signing Clement Lenglet filling the void to very good effect.
However, as a defensive unit Barcelona have struggled at times this season, notably in a 4-4 draw with Villarreal where Barça were constantly carved apart by a side who are struggling near the bottom of the league – against Liverpool, a defensive performance like that would be disastrous.
That game featured a rare 90 minutes for Umtiti, a man who has enjoyed a very impressive Barcelona career to date, but who looked extremely off the pace on his return to the team, so it is likely that Lenglet will retain his place as their first choice for the semis.
As a defensive pairing, Piqué and Lenglet have dealt very well with relatively weak opposition attackers all season, and despite some clean sheets against notable sides such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Manchester United this season, it could be argued that they haven’t yet been tested to the extent that they will be when faced with Liverpool’s classy front three.
All of Barcelona’s defenders are undoubtedly good players, but the fact that they rarely need to defend as Barça are always attacking and they haven’t faced many top quality forwards this season, they could be facing some problems when they meet Jurgen Klopp’s men.
As a result, Ernesto Valverde may deploy Arturo Vidal in midfield in order to stop their attacks at source and constantly regain possession for Barça, as his performances have been extremely impressive throughout the season, his tenacious defensive play-style proving very useful for Barcelona’s flair players as they can relax knowing that Vidal will soon win the ball back and find them again.
Still, Liverpool create many of their chances from moves involving their wide full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, which may tempt the Barça boss to try a four-man midfield as opposed to their usual 4-3-3 system, something that he used fairly regularly upon arriving at the club in 2017.
Keeping Arthur and Sergio Busquets comfortable in their usual central positions, Vidal and Ivan Rakitic could be pushed wide to cope with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, and when possession is regained they will always out-number Liverpool’s three man midfield, allowing them to keep the ball and build more attacks.
The system’s main drawback would be the inevitable absence of attackers Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele which would definitely be a controversial move, but it may be a necessary move for Ernesto Valverde if his Barça side are to cope with Liverpool’s threat.
Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto or Nelson Semedo will still provide an important attacking threat leaving Messi and Suarez far from isolated, whilst Rakitic and perhaps Vidal or Arthur could also push up when Barcelona have the ball, and Dembele and Coutinho will remain possible outlets to be used from the bench if needed.
They are certainly more than capable of winning the semi-final, but Liverpool are likely to be their toughest remaining test; if Barça reach the final, a face-off with Tottenham or Ajax seems more appealing.
They have already swept Tottenham aside at Wembley in the group stage this season, whilst Ajax play similarly to Barcelona yet they don’t have Messi, Suarez, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, making Barça clear favourites despite Ajax’s abundance of young talent.
They certainly have what it takes to finally regain the trophy, but Liverpool will be a tough old test for Ernesto Valverde’s men.