Champions League Semifinal Preview: Barça – Liverpool

Tomorrow night in Barcelona, the Champions League semifinal first leg kicks off against Liverpool. It is arguably Barça’s most important match of the season, perhaps even since that beautiful night in Berlin in 2015. It can be argued either way that the league or European crowns are better to win, but it is undeniable that continental semifinals are Big Time. Individual matches carry more weight in knockouts, of course, so it makes sense that the tension for this one is high.

Couple that with at least a few cules—including yours truly—being very worried about the matchups that Liverpool offers and it’s high drama time at the Camp Nou. Sadio Mané against Sergi Roberto. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah against Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, and Clement Lenglet, with Trent Alexander-Arnold coming in to back-up the attack from the wing, causing even more problems on the Barça’s weaker right wing.

Midfield looks a little better for Barça, but Klopp has plenty of experience changing personnel and should feel fairly comfortable fielding some combo of Naby Keïta, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and James Milner. In the last 4 Champions League matches Liverpool played, no starting midfield repeated itself:

            @ Bayern Munich away: Milner-Henderson-Wijnaldum
            vs Bayern Munich: Keïta-Henderson-Wijnaldum
            vs Porto: Keïta-Fabinho-Henderson
            @ Porto: Fabinho-Wijnaldum-Milner

Only Jordan Henderson made 4 appearances, coming on as a 71st minute substitution in the win away to Porto, which suggests a degree of flexibility and comfort for Klopp that many teams don’t often have. Matchups can be chosen rather than being forced upon a team, something that could be extremely useful against a possession-based team (albeit one that is far less reliant on total control than previous squad iterations). Still, Barça has to be considered the “favorite” in the midfield, with the ability to field Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Arthur Melo and have a certain Lionel Messi dropping deeper to facilitate link ups and provide an extra passing outlet when Liverpool’s high-tempo pressure would otherwise stall out an attack. Depending on who starts of Coutinho and Dembele, you can include them into the mix there too, Coutinho being more likely to drop and overload in midfield, creating imbalance in the Liverpool defense and forcing the attackers to drop deeper than maybe they would like to.

Barça’s attack is where one would naturally think Liverpool is at its biggest disadvantage, given that it’s filled with Messi and Suarez, who are matchup nightmares for almost any (or maybe every) team in the world. Even if he hasn’t been playing at the top of his game recently, Suarez is still punishing defense with incessant runs, physical play, and intelligent positioning. And of course Messi is Messi. If Dembele starts, that could push the wingbacks a bit further back than they would like to be given the counter-attacking speed that Barça would have available, but it would be a tradeoff with midfield numbers as Dembele is not polished in slow possession yet. Virgil van Dijk was just awarded the awkwardly named Professional Footballers’ Association Men’s Players’ Player of the Year award. 3 of their defenders (van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold, and Robertson) made an appearance in the PFA team of the year, suggesting that maybe there’s something not-quite-so-lopsided-as-usual about the Messi vs the opposing defense equation.

Statistics suggest this is a very, very close match. I took a look at FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index data (found here) and ran a few numbers. [Unless otherwise noted, all numbers in this next section are averages.] Liverpool allow very few opportunities, overall, opponents earning just 1.11 expected goals (xG) over Liverpool’s Premier League and Champions League matches (the data I could readily find), but away from home and specifically away from home in the Champions League, opponents did better at 1.23xG. The problem is, of course, that there have only been 5 away CL matches, so variations are going to be inherent in how we read these numbers. Barça counters this defensive solidity by earning 2.36xG in La Liga and Champions League combined and a return to earth at 2.03xG at home in the Champions League (again, just 5 matches).

This strikes me as the most important aspect: can Barcelona score enough goals before going to Anfield? You would imagine at least a 2-goal lead (2-0, 3-1, etc) would be essential to making it to the final, but can Barça actually keep Liverpool from scoring vital away goals? Barça allows 1.09xg from their opponents in their 5 home CL matches to date, with Manchester United registering an incredible 0.29xG in their last match, counteracting at least somewhat the 2.58xG that Tottenham achieved in a fairly meaningless match to end the group stage (and this is where small sample sizes hurt). Without Tottenham’s numbers, Barça’s defensive xG is 0.71. This is a number that puts Liverpool’s away CL defensive statistics to shame (1.23xG); in fact, it puts Liverpool’s lauded EPL xG allowed stats (0.83) to shame, too. Perhaps Barça’s defense isn’t so bad after all.

What about Liverpool’s away CL attacking numbers? They’ve registered 1.67xG, a far cry from their 2.27xG overall and have only scored 1.47 goals per match (compared to 2.22 overall). They are, simply put, not as good away from home. This is understandable, of course, but Barcelona isn’t going to care. Barça has allowed just 2 goals at home in the Champions League this season (to Tottenham in that meaningless match and the other against Lyon in the Round of 16 with the score at 2-0). While Liverpool have failed to score twice away from home (in the first 2 away matches), they have yet to earn a clean sheet in any of the 5 matches. They have, however, improved their goalscoring, going 0, 0, 1, 3, and 4 in their matches, although that last one at Porto was at least partially predicated on the first leg result, which saw Liverpool leave Anfield with a 2-0 lead. This means that Porto had to open up more than they might otherwise have done. The flip side is, of course, the thrashing that Bayern Munich received in the previous round after a 0-0 draw at Anfield (in which Bayern record 0.42xG to Liverpool’s 2.56; they recorded an even worse 0.28 at home, while Liverpool absolutely crushed their 1.06xG with 3 goals).

Why the focus on expected goals and not just goals? It shows the quality or number of opportunities (a major effort worth .9xG compared to 9 unlikely opportunities of 0.1 each would still equal the same overall xG, for instance) better than actual goals (what if you miss that 0.9xG shot, but somehow squeak in 5 of those 0.1xG opportunities?). The obvious question is whether a team consistently overperforms their xG (perhaps suggesting they have “sharpshooters” or incredibly talented finishers) or underperforms it (suggesting “bad luck” or poor finishing). Given that they are good teams, it shouldn’t surprise you that both Barça’s and Liverpool’s goal tallies stack up against their xG fairly well. Barça slightly overperforms and Liverpool slightly underperforms.

To put this in full season perspective, over their league and CL campaigns, these are the total goals scored vs the total xG:

Barça: 106.02xG, 109 goals.
Liverpool: 104.52xG, 102 goals.

Overall defensive stats:

Barça: 52.41xG, 38 goals.
Liverpool: 48.81xG, 29 goals.

It is not unreasonable to see Barcelona’s defense as slightly worse than Liverpool’s and Liverpool’s offense as slightly worse than Barcelona’s, setting up a nice dynamic. One interpretation is that Barcelona has simply suffered a few more unlucky breaks, another is that Liverpool simply doesn’t allow as many chances to begin with. Whatever it is, chances look like they’ll be at a premium and a single goal will likely require a big shift in approach.

It’s a big match and it’s going to require nerves of steel. That, I think, means Sergi Roberto at RB and Coutinho at “LW” simply because that is the usual approach EV takes. Otherwise, it’s a pretty obvious “gala 11” lineup. Henderson, Keïta, and Fabinho for Klopp seems likely to me from looking at past lineups, but I’m no Liverpool expert, so perhaps they will spin the wheel of starters another time and come up with some previously unseen trio. If Barça can withstand Liverpool’s likely early match onslaught, I like our chances through Messi and Suarez combining through the middle, regardless of what magic superpowers VVD supposedly has, according to EPL fans. He’s good—please don’t question that—but Messi is better and this squad is better than it has been since 2015 too, notwithstanding those last 10 minutes against Levante.

Prediction: 2-1. It’s going to be impossible to keep Liverpool off the scoreboard, but a win at home will be big. Going to Anfield up 2 goals would be huge, but the first leg of a Champions League semifinal is rarely open enough to allow that to happen. Visca el Barça y visca Catalunya. Let’s do this.

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Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.