MADRID: There was Lionel Messi as usual, backed by many of the same supporting players.
The main difference for Barcelona this time was the coach.
Barcelona has reinvented itself under Ernesto Valverde, showing it can change its style when needed and still be successful.
The match against Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday was a perfect example. Barcelona was forced to relinquish its ball-possession game, but it still came away with a 3-0 victory that left the club in position to reach its first final since it won its last European title four years ago.
“They were able to impose their back-and-forth game and it made it difficult for us,” Valverde said. “We tried to slow down the pace but they kept pressing. I liked how we knew how to suffer and how we came up with answers. We pulled off a victory against a very strong team.”
Despite playing at home, Barcelona finished with less ball possession than Liverpool, 48% to 52%. It was the first time a team held more possession than Barcelona in the Champions League since the semifinals against Bayern Munich in 2015.
“We played their game, their physically demanding pace. It was counterattack against counterattack,” said Messi, who scored twice to add to Luis Suarez’s opening goal at the Camp Nou. “We aren’t used to that. We like having possession of the ball and making the opponent run after the ball. We were exhausted, but that’s what the match demanded. We had to compete anyway we could.”
Liverpool also exchanged more passes than Barcelona (482-457), and ended with more attempts (14-11) and corners (5-3). Barcelona was pinned down on defense during parts of the game, needing 24 clearances against seven by Liverpool.
“I don’t know if we can play much better, to be honest,” Liverpool coach Juergen Klopp said.
Valverde had hinted even before the game started that ball possession might not have been the main focus for Barcelona, adding the more defensive-minded Arturo Vidal to the starting lineup in midfield instead of the more technical Arthur. The Brazilian has taken over the role of Andre Iniesta as the team’s pace-setter, becoming the man responsible for controlling possession.
But although the back-and-forth game was supposed to favor Liverpool and its speedy attack, Barcelona ended threatening the most in the end, and it could have scored more goals if it had capitalized on a few late counterattacks.
The defense also played a key role, holding strong when Liverpool pressed forward, with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen again coming through with a great performance and making a few important saves to keep the English team from getting an away goal.
Barcelona conceded that away goal in a 3-1 win over Roma in the first leg of last year’s quarterfinals at Camp Nou, eventually being eliminated in Italy after a 3-0 loss.
“It’s similar to last year, we also have a three-goal advantage, but look what happened then,” Valverde said. “We still have to play well in the second leg.”