BARCELONA: Barcelona will be aiming to keep the Champions League in Spanish hands when they host last year’s losing finalists Liverpool in the first leg of their semi-final on Wednesday, a clash that is considered by many to be the equivalent of a final for this season as both teams are the most in-form squads at the moment.
The winners over the two legs will undoubtedly be regarded as title favourites for the June 1 final in Madrid with the two aristocrats of the European game looking to end lean spells in the Champions League by their lofty standards, anyways.
It remains something of a mystery as to why Barca, led by Lionel Messi, have only made it to the last four once in the previous five years. That was in 2015, the year they won the title for the fifth time.
Win this year and the Catalans will extend the absolute domination in recent years of Spanish football over the Champions with Real Madrid lifting the trophy four times over the last five seasons — including an unprecedented hat-trick of titles over the last three years.
Liverpool are also five-time European champions and powerhouses again in the English Premier League under Juergen Klopp. This is a second straight year in the semi-finals for a team that has such a special relationship with this competition, yet before last season their most recent last-four appearance was in 2007.
The matches will see Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho come up against Liverpool, where they were stars before joining Barca.
Suarez played four seasons in England before making the move to Spain in 2014, while Coutinho spent six seasons with Liverpool before a high-profile and drawn-out transfer to the Spanish powerhouses last year.
While Suarez has thrived with Barcelona after leaving Liverpool, becoming the perfect foil for Messi — the season’s Champions League top scorer — in attack, Coutinho is yet to show the same form that made him a key player for the English club. The Brazil playmaker hasn’t been a regular starter for Barcelona and has been jeered occasionally by parts of the crowd at Camp Nou.
Barca — who also one step away from the Copa del Rey trophy as they aim to win the treble this year — outclassed Manchester United in the quarter-finals, and following a weekend in which they won La Liga title for the 26th time will be hoping to gain a good first-led advantage over the Reds.
Liverpool, who last won the Champions League in 2005, are in fine form, with 10 straight wins and 19 games unbeaten in all competitions.
And their never-ending pressure cooker continues as they are locked in a title race in the Premier League, one point behind Man City with two games to go. That means Klopp hasn’t been able to rest players unlike his counterpart at Barca, Ernesto Valverde, and he played a virtually full-strength team on Friday in a 5-0 win over Huddersfield Town.
Roberto Firmino missed that game with a slight muscle tear and the Brazil striker remains a doubt for the first leg.
“Apart from the word ‘tear’ everything else is positive,“ Klopp said after the match. “It is Bobby, so he might be ready for Wednesday, but we obviously don’t know in the moment.”
Liverpool and Barca last met in the Champions League in 2007, with Liverpool advancing on away goals in the Round-of-16. Liverpool have won all three of the teams’ two-legged European encounters.