Barça's CL defence has ended despite winning a gripping game at Anfield. Eidur Gudjohnsen’s second half winner was enough to tie the aggregate score at 2-2, but the Premiership side progresses to the quarter finals by virtue of the away goals rule.
The footballing spectacle served up on Merseyside this evening confirmed what we knew all along,
that it was always going to be a shame that what is left of the Champions League will be denied the
presence of one of these two fine sides. The pundits had expected Liverpool to do little more than
defend their 2-1 lead from the first leg at the Camp Nou, but the home side actually created the
lion’s share of the goalscoring opportunities in the first half. But Barça reacted in style
after the break, with Gudjohnsen finally putting the visitors into the driving seat, but Barça were
unable to secure the second goal that would have won a place in the quarter finals.
With Rijkaard going for the same 3-4-3 he tested to such great effect against Zaragoza, the aim was to smother Liverpool in midfield, but things got under way with Liverpool taking most of the early initiative, and Riise having two clear chances within the first ten minutes. The first was driven just wide of the post, and the second looped over Victor Valdés and onto the bar. But undeterred, Barça seemed content to play with the typical composure and patience of the passing, possession and waiting game. It eventually bore fruit with a Deco free kick on 20 minutes that found Marquez’s head. The Mexican’s effort skimmed just wide of the post, but the linesman’s flag had already gone up for offside.
Chances come to nothing for Liverpool
In the 25th minute, Liverpool had three chances to score as part of the same heart-stopping move. Valdés produced two excellent saves at point-blank range from Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt, before Carles Puyol was at hand to clear a Riise header off the line. And the danger was not over there, as a few minutes later a mix-up between Valdés and Puyol saw the ball cleared only as far as Sissoko, who lofted a long range effort towards an undefended goal, only for it to strike the Barcelona bar for the second time of the night. Two stats told the story of an intense first 45 minutes of football. Barcelona had enjoyed 60 per cent of the possession, but Liverpool had had 10 shots on goal to Barça’s one, a long range strike from Ronaldinho shortly before half time that was just too high.
The second half began with another let off for Barça as Craig Bellamy fumbled the chance to convert a Gerrard cross. Barça needed to find some kind of reaction, knowing that they needed two goals and were failing to convert their dominance of the midfield into anything other than remote goalscoring chances, coming up time and time again against the solid Liverpool defence led so brilliantly by Jamie Carragher.
Barça show their class
Things started turning in Barça’s favour from the 50th minute when Ronaldinho finally hit the target with a free kick that Reina held onto well. Barely a minute later, the Brazilian was causing more trouble with a deft turn and a run into space to produce what looked like the first goal of the night, but the ball rebounded back off the woodwork. Leo Messi was next Barça player to put Reina to the test as Barça produced a series of reminders of just who the reigning champions of Europe are, and that they would not be surrendering that crown without putting up a fight.
But time was ticking by, and with less than half an hour to go, changes were needed. Samuel Eto’o, who Rijkaard had finally opted to give a chance in the starting line up, was struggling to keep up with the pace of a frenetic game, and Giuly was sent on his stead. Then Rijkaard decided it was time to throw caution to the wind and sent on another striker, Gudjohnsen, with Thuram coming off and Marquez being pulled back into defence. And the gamble paid off brilliantly. In the 74th minute, a defence-splitting through ball beat the Liverpool offside trap, and found the Icelander, who dribbled the ball around Reina and coolly tapped home to put Barça 1-0 up on the night. All of a sudden, there was hope.
Race against the clock
The goal set the night alight. Barça needed just one more to seal a famous comeback. The noise and singing in Anfield had been deafening all night, but following the goal, it seemed to be doing as much to rouse Barça as it did the home side. The last quarter of an hour was about almost constant Barça pressure, with Reina saving from Ronaldinho and Finnan just arriving in time to intercept Gudjohnsen before the Icelander was able to shoot from close on a goal. With qualification hanging on a knife-edge, there were nerves among both sets of supporters.
But despite conceding the initiative to the Catalans, Liverpool were as dangerous as ever on the counter attack, and Barça very much had Victor Valdés to thank for keeping the Reds at bay. Gerrard saw two terrific shots from a narrow angle intercepted by the Barça stopper, and deep into injury time, Valdés rounded off his impeccable display by denying Pennant a Liverpool equaliser, while substitute Peter Crouch failed from a position where it would have been easier to score.
It had been a night to remember, with end to end action all the way, but Liverpool ultimately dealt with the situation brilliantly and made their shock advantage from the first leg count. Barcelona, meanwhile, can go out of this tournament with their heads held high. Winning at Anfield is one of the hardest tasks in football, and Rijkaard’s side certainly gave it their best shot. No side has ever managed to successfully defend the Champions league since it was created, and sadly, that record will remain intact for at least one more season.
The last time Liverpool and Barça met at Anfield was in November 2002. Barça at the time were managed by the duo of Carles Rexach and José Ramon Alexanko and won a famous match 3-1. Liverpool went ahead through former Madrid man Michael Owen, but Kluivert, Rochemback and Marc Overmars turned the game around. The first leg in the Camp Nou had ended goalless.
Liverpool v Barça. The return leg of the Champions League second round takes place tonight at Anfield, with Frank Rijkaard’s side needing to bounce back from the disappointment of home defeat at the Camp Nou to win a place in the quarter finals.
The way the game is approached tonight (20:45, Antena 3) will be conditioned for both teams by
Liverpool’s 2-1 win in the first leg. The Dutchman is likely to opt for an attacking
formation if he is to get anything out of a difficult game. He may use the same 3-4-3 format that
produced such a positive result in a similar situation at Zaragoza last week, or he may have yet
another surprise up his sleeve. Whatever he goes for, this is a chance for Barça to make history in
Europe and put an end to a worryingly efficient record that says that on the 25 occasions in the
past when Liverpool have won the first leg, they have always gone on to qualify for the next round.
Benítez, sticking to his guns: Rafa Benítez, born in Madrid 46 years ago, is one of the most respected managers on the European football scene right now. He won the League and Uefa Cup with Valencia, shortly after guiding Tenerife back into the top flight, and signed for Liverpool in June 2004, and won the Champions League at the first time of asking. With his different teams, Benitez has faced Barcelona 11 times, losing six and winning five. He is more likely than ever to stick to his usual philosophy of concentrating more on defence than attack tonight, and relying on the likes of the pacy Riïse and Bellamy to create counter attacks, and find chances for Gerrard or Xabi Alonso to finish things off. Up front there are currently doubts as to whether Crouch or Dutchman Kuyt will get the nod for the centre forward role.
The perfect game: As Carles Puyol said to the press after the final training session before the match, “we will need to know how to play the perfect game”. He and his coach are aware that tonight they will need to take risks and go for all out attack. But as has been indicated by Rijkaard “we will need to do so intelligently”. Liverpool seemed unbeatable at Anfield until only recently, but Arsenal in the Carling Cup (3-6) and Manchester United in the league (0-1) have already shown that it is no impossible task. Not that that will mean things will be easy, but Rijkaard will benefit from the returns of Deco and Thuram, who missed the weekend defeat at Sevilla, and the ‘trident’ up front is more than likely to be made up of Messi, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o.
In tonight’s crunch encounter, Barcelona will be returning to the old pistachio yellow kit that produced such positive results last season. The reason for this is that both Barcelona’s traditional scarlet and blue and the orange reserve colours clash with Liverpool’s famous red.
1,700 voices of support: Barcelona are taking more away supporters to Liverpool than for any other European game so far this year. Around 1,700 Barça supporters have made the trip north. 110 of these flew up with the first team, while the remainder have travelled on three aircraft provided by the club in association with its official travel agent RACC, and some made their own arrangements. The huge numbers of followers of the Catalan club have arranged to meet at 17.00 in Queen's Square, from where they will walk to the game together.
Rijkaard’s good European record: Since 2003, when Frank Rijkaard took over on the FC Barcelona bench, Barça have played in 37 European fixtures, 29 of those in the Champions league. And the Dutchman’s record is more than respectable. He has picked up 22 wins, 8 draws and suffered just 6 defeats, the last of which was his first home defeat in Europe, an adverse result he and his team will be determined to make amends for at Anfield tonight.