It would take an almighty capitulation for the Spanish side to suffer elimination…but that’s exactly what happened just over a year ago on a fateful night in Italy.
And that doubts sowed by that shocking loss are one of the talking points ahead of Tuesday’s showdown.
SAME AGAIN FOR VALVERDE?
Barca boss Ernesto Valverde has one less option than he did for the first leg, with Ousmane Dembele ruled out of action after suffering a hamstring injury during the early stages of a much-changed team’s loss at Celta Vigo on Saturday night.
In truth, however, Dembele was highly unlikely to start an Anfield in any case, with Valverde instead wrestling with selection decisions of a different nature.
First and foremost is the question of whether Philippe Coutinho should play, with the former Liverpool man jeered off the field by a significant section of his own fans when he was replaced early after an hour at Camp Nou last week.
Coutinho’s removal coincided with a significant upturn in the team’s performance, with Sergi Roberto adding an extra spark of energy in his new midfield role after being repositioned from full-back while Nelson Semedo – the man introduced from the bench – provided more pace to deal with Sadio Mane’s threat down the flank for Liverpool.
So it could well be the case that Valverde starts the second leg with the same side that played minutes 60 to 90 last week, with Roberto in midfield and Semedo at right-back, leaving Coutinho hoping for a chance to impress from the bench.
BANISHING THE GHOSTS OF ROME?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in front of Barca is the mental battle they face in overcoming the lingering demons from last season’s second leg quarter-final collapse at Roma, where Valverde’s men allowed a 4-1 first leg advantage to slip with a shockingly disjointed performance against the highly motivated hosts.
Although Barca again hold a three-goal lead in this tie and the scenario is somewhat similar, the big difference in their favour this time is the lack of an away goal for Liverpool, who would ‘only’ force extra time with a 3-0 victory, and that additional cushion is a big comfort for the visiting team.
However, throughout the last year it has been difficult for Valverde and his players to pass a single day without hearing the fateful word ´Roma´ thrown in their faces, and if Liverpool can grab an early goal it would easy for a panicking sense of “here we go again” to spread throughout the Barca team.
All the signs suggest that this year’s crop are made of mentally tougher stuff, and the way they withstood Liverpool’s powerful start to the second half last week was highly encouraging. But now they have to prove it, and banish the ghosts of Rome for good.
LIMITED ATTACKING OPTIONS
If the worst case scenario does arise for Barca and Liverpool take the lead to threaten overturning the deficit, Valverde will have to decide how long to react before he makes a meaningful change of strategy.
He was heavily criticised last year for failing to bring on Dembele at Roma until it was too late, but this time around his options have been limited by the injury to the Frenchman and the absence of other credible attacking options within the squad.
Coutinho, if he starts on the bench, could be one but, barring an unlikely opportunity for Kevin Prince Boateng, Valverde’s only other real option is Brazilian winger Malcom, who has received precious little playing time this season and would surely only be used by Valverde in desperate circumstances.
Should he find his team trailing, it’s more likely that Valverde will respond by bolstering his midfield with the addition of Arthur or Carles Alena to provide more control in midfield, or there will be the option of strengthening the defence with the addition of a third central defender in the form of Samuel Umtiti.
But if Valverde takes such drastic measures, it will only be because his team is desperately struggling.
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