It was the speed of the reaction that caught Virgil van Dijk out. As the ball came back of the crossbar, he was on his heels and Lionel Messi was not. So Messi scored the 599th goal of his Barcelona career and Van Dijk was left to reflect on another bad night at the Nou Camp.
The last time he was here, with Celtic in 2013, his team conceded six so you could say this was an improvement. But it was failure all the same. On a night when Liverpool were as good as – or better than – Barcelona in so many areas and for so long, they lost the game and Van Dijk – hard as it is to say – lost his personal battle with perhaps the greatest attacking player the world has ever seen.
On TV, Rio Ferdinand blamed Van Dijk for the first goal, scored in the opening half by Luis Suarez. That was a marginal call. Van Dijk’s defensive partner Joel Matip was caught on his heels as Suarez stole in. At the very least, both were marginally culpable.
For the second, though, Messi was too quick in thought and deed. Van Dijk dropped his head towards the ground as Messi rammed the ball in from close range. He knew what everybody else knew, namely that a 1-0 defeat would have been palatable while a loss by two was not.
There was to be another goal, of course, and we will all remember that one. Messi’s free kick took the paint off the post as it went in. But it was the second one that shaped this game and this tie. Liverpool were the better team at that time and it changed everything.
With the score at 1-0 to Barcelona with 15 minutes to go, Liverpool led Barcelona in possession, shots and corners. That reflected the way the game had been for long periods. Barcelona had looked vulnerable for the first half an hour of the second half in particular. Had they been offered a single goal win at that stage they undoubtedly would have taken it.
But the second goal gave the Spanish champions some security and comfort and on the back of that came renewed courage and confidence and the fortitude to play expansively and take risks. And so by the end, it was three and it could have been four or five. Twice in added time Barcelona could have scored again, including with the very last kick of the game, so it is worth repeating that the second goal really was very important indeed, probably the most crucial of the home team’s season in Europe.
History will record that this was just another in a long list of Barcelona victories at the Nou Camp against English teams. Their aggregate in six games against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and the two Manchester clubs is now 19-3 dating back to, and not including, Chelsea’s 2-2 draw here seven years ago.
But those who were here will tell you that this night was different. This is what we had been waiting for in recent years, a game between the club that has set the bar so high in Europe for the last decade or more and a Premier League side good enough to give them a proper match.
Manchester City failed here in 2014, 2015 and 2016 simply because the games came too early for a club on the rise. Chelsea came last season but were not good enough while Manchester United’s recent effort is barely worthy of recall.
This, though, was different, at least for 75 minutes. This was a game that went by in a blur of activity, a whirl of press and counter-press, attack and counter attack. Liverpool matched Barcelona across every blade but just could not score and how they didn’t will remain a mystery for a while. When Mo Salah struck the post from seven yards late on, we knew beyond all doubt that this was a strange night.
Perhaps the biggest compliment we can pay Jurgen Klopp’s team is that they ultimately brought the best out of Barcelona. Comfortable winners of La Liga, Ernesto Valverde’s team have nevertheless not been uniformly impressive. Against United in the last eight, they were sluggish and error prone. Had United been better, they would have scored in both games.
Here, though, Liverpool played so well and offered such a constant threat that Barcelona’s key players reached deep inside to produce performances appropriate to the stakes. Messi was destructively brilliant when his moments came while Suarez played on the edge of legality. He is always somewhere near his best when the blood is up and here you could almost smell it.
So Liverpool gave their best but came up short. Klopp may regret asking Joe Gomez to start his first game since December while the absence of the not fully fit Roberto Firmino was cruel.
But it was a former Barcelona manager Louis van Gaal who noted recently how score lines can warp judgement. People look at results and not performances, he said, and he was right.
This was a 3-0 defeat that could have been something else entirely and we can be almost certain that Klopp’s team will score in next week’s return leg. But on this evidence the chances of a Liverpool clean sheet remain low. Don’t hold your breath for a miracle.