Liverpool vs. Barcelona Tactical Preview: Can the Reds Stop Messi?

Liverpool vs. Barcelona Tactical Preview: Can the Reds Stop Messi? article feature image

Emilio Morenatti/AP. Pictured: Leo Messi

  • Barcelona and Liverpool will meet in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday, May 1st at 3 p.m. at Nou Camp in Barcelona, Spain.
  • Barca are favored to win at Camp Nou, but Liverpool are a live underdog.

Betting odds: Liverpool vs. Barcelona

  • Liverpool odds: +329
  • Barcelona odds: -113
  • Draw: +280
  • Over/Under: 2.75
  • Time: Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET
  • TV: TNT

>> All odds as of 11 p.m. ET on Tuesday. Download The Action Network App to get real-time Soccer odds and track your bets

The UEFA Champions League semifinals roll on Wednesday afternoon with Liverpool (second in England’s Premier League) visiting Barcelona (winners of Spain’s La Liga). Barcelona enter the match as favorites to win the first leg and to advance to the Final.

Liverpool’s odds have shortened from their opening prices, as sharps and recreational bettors alike see value in backing the Reds, who have won 10 straight in all competitions.

Barcelona meanwhile enter the semifinals on the back off a league-clinching 1-0 win over Levante. The Catalans have won La Liga two years in a row and four times in the last five seasons.

Most notably, Lionel Messi (you may have heard of him) was afforded a 45-minute respite, coming off the bench in the second half to score the winning goal.

Can Liverpool Stop Messi?

The prospect of Messi running the show will likely have kept Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp up at night over the last two weeks.

This iteration of Barcelona isn’t completely a one-man team, but Messi remains the offensive hub for the Blaugrana: the Argentine has 46 goals and 18 assists in all competitions this season, leading the team in each category.

That might be because Barcelona as currently constructed don’t have heaps of top-tier attacking talent take the offensive burden off Messi. Father time is looming over Luis Suarez’s shoulder, and former Liverpool talisman Philippe Coutinho is yet to live up to his enormous price tag. Ousmane Dembele has looked lively for stretches this season, but it’s unclear whether Ernesto Valverde trusts the 21-year-old on the biggest stages in the sport.

Barcelona will likely line up in their customary 4-3-3, with Messi and Suarez guaranteed starters in the forward line. Jordi Alba will provide width on the left from fullback — he’s second in the team with 8 assists this season, thanks in no small part to his near-telepathic connection with Messi.

Barca’s midfield will likely be more pragmatic than midfields of Barcelona past: Sergio Busquets doesn’t have the legs he used to, so surrounding him with willing runners in the center of the park is a necessity.

Is Liverpool the Better Team?

Liverpool will probably feel that, outside of Lionel Messi, the starting XI they’ll roll out Wednesday might better Barcelona at every other position.

Mo Salah hasn’t lit the world on fire the way he did in the 2017/18 season, but his underlying numbers indicate he’s firmly one of the best five or so players in the world. Sadio Mane is having the best goal-scoring season of his life. Virgil van Dijk was just deservedly named PFA Player of the Year in England — the Reds will almost certainly lean hard on their world class defender to stop Messi.

The Reds are dealing with a few niggling injuries in their stretch run. Holding midfielder Fabinho is recovering from a concussion and questionable to start. Roberto Firmino, the third member of Liverpool’s feared attacking triumvirate, has as muscle injury and is a game-time decision.

If Firmino is fit to start, it’s likely that hit be joined to the hip with Busquets when the Reds are out of possession, to prevent the Spaniard from dictating the tempo of the match. And if Barcelona are unable to control the midfield, Liverpool should be able to orchestrate the game to their liking.

That means letting their midfielders play in reserved holding roles (good for keeping an eye on that Messi guy!) to allow their fullbacks, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, to advance up the pitch and join the forward line.

Liverpool’s wide defenders have broken and re-broken records this season for assists from the fullback position — Robertson’s 11 lead the team, followed closely behind by Alexander-Arnold’s 9.

Liverpool’s dream scenario involves Firmino man-marking Busquets out of the game, unbalancing Barcelona’s midfield to create counter-attacking chances for Salah and Mane. If the Barcelona midfield drops deeper, that invites the fullbacks to creep up the pitch and whip dangerous crosses into the box.

If Firmino is too injured to play, or worse, rushed back from injury and ineffectual, the game changes. Liverpool will likely keep Salah and Mane up top and plug in an extra midfielder to gum up the center of the pitch and keep the game toward the wings.

The make-up of that midfield when lineups are announced is something I’ll be personally keeping an eye on: Klopp has slowly been integrating summer signing Naby Keita into the team. If he starts, it gives the Reds another capable ball-mover in the midfield to supply the forward line.

Is the Betting Market Flattering Barca?

In the first leg of a home-and-away Champions League tie, I’m usually looking for experienced heads over youthful exuberance. But I’m not so sure these odds should be this wide.

Liverpool have proven over the course of Klopp’s tenure that they relish games against Europe’s elite. And this year’s Barcelona is both old and slow, a particularly deadly combination against Mane-Firmino-Salah.

I need to wait to see if Firmino starts before making a wager on this game — but if his name is on the team sheet, I’m all over Liverpool.