Lionel Messi left Liverpool needing a miracle to reach its second Champions League final in as many years as his two goals helped Barcelona win a pulsating semi-final first leg 3-0.
Barca has one foot in next month’s final ahead of Wednesday’s second leg at Anfield after former Reds striker Luis Suarez gave the Spanish club the lead during a breathless opening 45 minutes before Messi struck twice late on, the second a stunning free kick and his 600th goal for Barcelona.
Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp could only smile after Messi’s curling shot nestled in the top corner but this result was harsh on his side, who he said couldn’t have played much better. Klopp admitted it was Barcelona’s finishing prowess that set it apart and even he had to admire Messi’s magical moment.
“In Messi’s moments he’s unstoppable. The free kick, what a strike. He’s a world class player,” Klopp said. “I knew before that he was a world class player so I’m not too surprised to be honest.”
English greats turned commentators Gary Lineker and Rio Ferdinand were in awe of the little maestro’s magic, losing it in the commentary box when his free kick sailed home.
Ferdinand said: “Once again, he’s decided, ‘I will take this game over and take it off the opposing team’.
“The free kick was unbelievable. The keeper could maybe do better but this … this is stuff I can tell my kids and grandkids one day. He’s that good.”
Social media also went into meltdown.
The Reds matched Barcelona in the first half, dominated early in the second and could still have left with an away goal after Messi’s deadly double, only for Mohamed Salah to hit the post.
But Messi and Suarez did what they have done all season, their tallies now at 47 and 27 goals respectively in all competitions.
It had been a breathtaking contest befitting two of Europe’s most exhilarating teams. The first half was electric, a reel of chances, breaks and blocks, while the second was tense, a tactical battle where Barca dared Liverpool to over-exert.
The comeback will be even tougher for the English club given Barcelona, with the Spanish La Liga title wrapped up, will surely rest a host of players against Celta Vigo this weekend while Liverpool, a point behind Premier League leader Manchester City, will have to be at full throttle again away at Newcastle on Saturday.
Messi was already fresh after playing just over half the La Liga minutes he could have done in April, and he looked sharp early on, weaving through the centre while for Liverpool, the sensational Sadio Mane raced down the left.
The attacks were scintillating but the defending was good too. Andy Robertson scrambled across to block Messi’s finish from six yards and moments later it was Sergi Roberto on the slide, preventing Mane from racing clear.
The opening goal came in the 26th minute. Arturo Vidal sprayed the ball left to Philippe Coutinho, who cushioned back for Jordi Alba. Alba shaped to cross but instead curved a perfectly weighted pass to the near post, where Suarez nipped in and finished.
Liverpool came again. Mane scampered in behind then flicked the ball round Sergio Busquets. He should have scored too, Jordan Henderson’s cross finding him free inside the box but the shot flew over the crossbar.
Barca took control just as Suarez began to lose it, irked by James Milner barging Messi into the sideboards after the Argentinian had danced past Robertson.
But Liverpool was re-energised at the start of the second half. Barca goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen pushed away shots from Milner and Salah, then held a Milner drive.
Messi took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails late in the contest, striking twice in seven minutes. His own run started the first, setting Sergi free to pass to Suarez. Off balance, Suarez could only volley against the crossbar but the ball came back for Messi, who chested and finished into an open net.
Two goals was hard on Liverpool but Messi was not done. The free kick was central, 30 metres out from goal and he whipped it over the wall and into the top corner.
Barca was delirious but Liverpool almost grabbed an away goal when a clearance on the line fell kindly for Salah, who hammered against the post and left Liverpool with little hope of making the Madrid final.