BARCELONA Lionel Messi put Barcelona on the verge of the Champions League final with a devastating double in a 3-0 home win over Liverpool in the first leg of their last-four clash on Wednesday, taking his goal tally for the Catalans to 600. The Argentines milestone goal was a moment of brilliance as he curled a dazzling free kick into the top corner from distance to add gloss to a scoreline that did not reflect the balance of play.
Yet whereas Barcelona took their chances with clinical precision, Liverpool wasted a string of opportunities that fell their way.
Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez reminded the visitors of his superb finishing by opening the scoring in the 26th minute of a tense and finely-balanced first half at the Nou Camp, darting between two Liverpool defenders to divert Jordi Albas cross into the net.
Barca captain Messi scored the all-important second goal of the night in the 75th minute, chesting the ball down on the rebound and dribbling it over the line after Suarez had hammered the crossbar with a shot with his knee.
The Argentine then added to Barcas already huge advantage to take into next Tuesdays second leg at Anfield by smashing home his sizzling free kick in the 82nd minute.
Four goals would have been better than three but this is a very good result, Messi told reporters.
We know that the tie isnt over, Anfield is a very difficult place to go but were happy with the super game we played tonight. They clearly wanted to score because an away goal means a lot but they didnt and we have a great advantage.
Liverpool, who were beaten 3-1 in last years final by Real Madrid, played far better than the scoreline suggested, carving out a number of clear chances but spurning them all.
Barcas South American duo of Suarez and Messi showed little mercy whenever they sniffed out a chance and condemned Juergen Klopps side to their first defeat in any competition since January with some ruthless finishing.
Klopp praised his sides performance but he was not optimistic about the likelihood of a miraculous turnaround.
I was completely happy with how we played, we played between the lines, we had chances and caused them a lot of problems, the German told a news conference.
If you lose away its not a massive problem as long as you scored a goal but we didnt score that goal and that makes things a lot harder. We have a chance because its football but we had a much bigger chance before tonight.
Suarez spared little thought for his former employers following his eventful three-and-a-half-year stay on Merseyside, as he celebrated his opening strike with relish, racing behind the goal and wagging his finger at the delighted Barca fans.
Sadio Mane squandered a glorious chance to level for the Premier League side later in the first half but scooped the ball over the bar, while James Milner and Mohamed Salah were both denied by Barcas excellent Marc-Andre ter Stegen later on.
Klopps side had done an impressive job of shackling Barcas all-time top scorer Messi, but there was little they could do when the Argentine pounced on the loose ball after Suarez had hit the crossbar.
Messi sparked further celebrations at a packed Nou Camp with another outstanding free kick, yet the drama in this blockbuster European encounter was far from over.
Liverpool again went agonisingly close to snatching an away goal as Barcas Ivan Rakitic scrambled the ball off the goalline only to find the feet of Salah, who somehow smashed the rebound against the near post.
Barca could have seized an even bigger advantage in the tie with two golden chances as Liverpool tired that fell to substitute Ousmane Dembele, but the Frenchman missed the target the first time then shot straight into the hands of goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
Captain Messi showing Barcelona the way
Lionel Messi has shown many different faces during his spell-binding career but in Barcelona’s win over Liverpool on Wednesday, the dominant one was of a leader.
Barca were not at their best at Camp Nou, instead made to sweat and suffer against a Liverpool side that were just as dangerous in the first half and then dominant for at least a 20-minute period in the second.
But when his team were struggling, Messi delivered, two goals in seven minutes turning turn a disappointing night into a disastrous one for Liverpool and leaving Barcelona with one foot in the Champions League final.
“In these moments, he is unstoppable,” Jurgen Klopp said. “I knew before that he was a world-class player and I saw it again. I am not surprised.”
“I am always surprised,” said Ernesto Valverde. “I don’t know how he does it.”
In the end, 3-0 seemed harsh, lacking the away goal Liverpool deserved and requiring now a comeback in the second leg at Anfield that would surely rival the 2005 miracle in Istanbul.
Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane terrorised Barca’s defence, the latter perhaps even the game’s stand-out player during a breathless opening 45 minutes, in which both teams might have scored two or three.
But while Liverpool’s deadly duo have an impressive 50 goals between them this season, Suarez and Messi have 75, their knack of finding, creating and converting chances unparallelled and, in this first leg, decisive.
Between Mane firing over from eight yards and Salah hammering the post, Messi tapped into an open net and arced a free-kick, past the right hand of Alisson and into the top corner.
It was his second goal on the night and 600th for Barcelona, after 683 games, 14 years to the day since his first. He now has 12 goals in this season’s Champions League, only two short of his best in 2012.
“He’s a fantastic player, it’s obvious,” Virgil van Dijk said. “I think the hard part is that when we attack, he is waiting somewhere, in the corner or anywhere, you can never switch off.”
-Important moment –
It was also the 100th time he had worn the captain’s armband for his club and in some ways, this season has ushered in another cycle of Messi. From dribbler, to scorer, to creator, Messi, at 31, is now Barelona’s leader too.
He walked them out, scored two goals and walked them back in, saluting the crowd as he went. He defended Philippe Coutinho, by gesturing to the fans not to whistle as he was substituted and then admonishing them during a frank post-match interview.
“It’s ugly to say goodbye to a player like that,” Messi said. “We were in a defining moment, we are in an important moment where we have to be more united than ever, all of us, as a team.
“We said at the beginning of the year that we are going to achieve this together and it is not a moment to criticise anyone but to support, to push forward and to do this all together.”
Valverde was keen to point out that Barcelona threw away a three-goal cushion against Roma in the quarter-finals last season but, avoid a repeat at Anfield, and his team are within touching distance of a treble.
With La Liga wrapped up, they face Valencia in the final of the Copa del Rey this month before a potential Champions League decider against either Tottenham or Ajax in Madrid on June 1.
“We have only a few games left and hopefully two finals,” Messi said. “We will do it all together.”