Luis Suarez led the way and Lionel Messi added the killer blows as Barcelona battled to a 3-0 victory in last night’s Champions League semi-final first leg at the Camp Nou.
Suarez’s aggression and competitive instinct were vital as he put Barca 1-0 up but a super valiant Liverpool side really tested them until two very different goals from Messi late on mean the Catalans already have one foot in the final.
After a super-fast start to the game from both sides, with credible penalty claims at either end, Suarez’s anticipation, athleticism, and finish were all superb as he raced onto Jordi Alba’s excellent pass and stretched to guide the ball past Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson for the opening goal.
The visitors’ back four were caught square, the statuesque Virgil Van Dijk in particular, but the timing of Alba’s pass and Suarez’s goalscoring instinct made it almost impossible to stop.
Few players would have had the mental determination or the physical dexterity to both reach the ball and flick it past the keeper, apparently without having to look or even think about what he was doing.
It was also quite amazing timing from Suarez, scoring in the biggest game of the season against his former side, having somehow gone 36 shots without finding the net through eight previous UCL appearances this season.
Despite still having fond memories of his two-and-a-half years at Anfield, there was no holding back in an exuberant knee-sliding celebration as most of the 98,299 Camp Nou crowd roared along with him.
The 32-year-old was even more pumped up after that, regularly getting involved in physical and verbal clashes with Liverpool players, jabbing fingers at Alisson, talking menacingly to full-back Andy Robertson, and beseeching referee Bjorn Kuipers to take action when Messi was taken out late by James Milner.
But there was great intelligence to his movement and link-up play, and the much-lauded Van Dijk was often chasing shadows, although partner Jordi Matip did get back to make a vital intervention early in the second half when Suarez seemed set to make it 2-0.
Not that Barca were fully in control of the game. Liverpool winger Sadio Mane really should have equalised when picked out by substitute Jordan Henderson close to half-time.
When in the lead Ernesto Valverde’s side often aim to sit deeper and look to hit on the break, although Liverpool’s intensity and drive was such that they had little other choice this time.
Another former Reds player Philippe Coutinho was unable to get to the pace of the game at all, and was unsurprisingly the first blaugrana player replaced.
Suarez, Messi, Alba, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Busquets are all now in their 30s. The team of experienced winners were waiting for their moment.
The killer second goal came from a rare attack prompted by Messi, with the ball flying up in the air when Sergi Roberto was blocked by Robertson.
Suarez was again the sharpest player to react, volleying past Alisson but onto the crossbar, with the rebound falling to Messi who calmly controlled on his chest and finished to the empty net.
You had to wait for the replay to see that the Uruguayan had actually used his knee to propel the ball goalwards, more evidence of an uncanny ability to somehow find a way to do what he has to do in the most important moments.
Suarez was also involved in Barca’s third, albeit by getting booked by referee Bjorn Kjuipers for his protests after Messi was fouled.
The Argentine picked himself to curl an unstoppable free kick to the top corner from 25 yards, his 26th goal in 32 matches against English clubs.
Frantic defending from Barca then denied Liverpool the away goal which would have given them some hope ahead of Tuesday’s return game.
It might not mean much to Jurgen Klopp’s men and their fans at present, but this was nothing like how Barca easily handled Manchester United in the previous round.
They gave Valverde’s side their biggest challenge both tactically and physically so far in this year’s competition.
It was just that a team with Suarez’s wiles and Messi’s magic, with both super motivated to take back the Champions League trophy, were able to handle everything thrown at them.
And hit back even harder.