Liverpool’s comeback over Barcelona on their way to their sixth European Cup is likely to overshadow all other clashes between the two clubs for the forseeable future.
Lionel Messi’s performance in the first leg is pretty much already wiped from the memory, the control of Barcelona’s signature passing style in a group stage victory in 2001 pales in comparison to such a thrashing, and a Liverpool win tucked in amongst those clashes is likely to get overlooked when thinking of Liverpool’s great European nights.
In December 2006, holders Barcelona were drawn against the previous holders Liverpool in the last sixteen of the Champions League. Barcelona had been pipped to top spot in their group due a narrow 1-0 loss to Chelsea, while Liverpool, now stronger than when they had won the competition, had topped theirs.
In preparation for the tie, Liverpool spent a mid-season break in Southern Portugal. “The idea was to give the players a chance to relax,” then-Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez claims, “to spend some time together and to do some training sessions the week prior to the first leg”.
On the Thursday night, Benitez pushed the players’ curfew back to midnight to give them an opportunity to go out for a few drinks in town. A few hours later, he was called down by the hotel staff to settle an argument between two players. John Arne Riise had refused to have a go at karaoke, to which Craig Bellamy took offence, and, having begun their bickering in the bar, the night ended with Bellamy swinging a golf club at Riise back at the hotel, with the commotion gaining the attention of the hotel staff, who contacted Benitez. Presumably it wasn’t quite what Benitez had in mind when he allowed the team out hours before.
When the match rolled around though, Liverpool looked unfazed by the drama. Benitez sent them out in a 4-4-2 formation, with Dirt Kuyt partnering Bellamy up front and Steven Gerrard playing out on the right wing. Barcelona lined up in their usual 4-3-3 shape, with Javier Saviola replacing the injured Samuel Eto’o as the lone striker.
Liverpool’s main focus was on stopping Barcelona’s wide attackers. Retrospectively the main interest is on Lionel Messi, partially because he’s gone on to become the greatest player to have played the game, partially because of the creative way Benitez solved the problem he posed. With the Argentinian looking to pick up the ball out on the right flank then cut inside on his stronger left foot, Benitez gave a debut to the new signing from Deportivo La Coruna, Alvaro Arbeloa, at left-back.
Naturally right-footed and from then on a right-back, Messi would be cutting inside onto Arbeloa’s favoured side too. The Spaniard was an intelligent and mobile defender, so he could stick tight to Messi and stop him from embarking on his slaloming runs inside. He was helped by Riise ahead of him, who, playing just as frequently at full-back as in midfield, was comfortable tracking back to double up on Messi.
A few times Messi managed to cut inside and pass into Saviola’s feet in the first half, but that was the extent of his influence on the game and even that dried up once Daniel Agger got tighter to Saviola.
At the time, the greater worry was probably over Ronaldinho, who was still at the peak of his powers, whereas Messi, although already talked about as one of the world’s most exciting players, was only in his first season as a proper starter for Barcelona.
“It seems strange now, but playing Barcelona then was not simply a matter of doing anything we could to stop Messi,” Benitez says. “We were just as concerned with how to cope with Ronaldinho. The Brazilian played on the left wing nominally, but would drift inside, occupying space between the lines.
“That would create a problem for Steve Finnan, our right-back. If he tracked Ronaldinho, he would leave space for Barcelona’s left-back, Gianluca Zambrotta, to exploit. The threat of Barcelona’s number ten, though, was more important. I instructed Finnan to follow his man, to push him, not to allow him a moment to play the sort of penetrating pass which could cut a defence apart in a second.”
Finnan played his part perfectly when Ronaldinho was in the attacking third, stopping him from turning regardless of whether he received the ball out wide or through the centre, and more than once timing runs so that he darted in to intercept the ball just before Ronaldinho received it to feet.
Early on, Ronaldinho was able to confuse Liverpool’s right flank by dropping deep. Finnan would follow him high up the pitch and stop him from turning, however Gerrard would look to take over covering Ronaldinho when he moved into his zone, presumably under the assumption that Finnan should drop off as he normally would. This allowed Zambrotta to burst forward untracked a few times early on, with both Gerrard and Finnan following Ronaldinho – the Brazilian couldn’t turn but he didn’t need to when he could just flick the ball away to the Italian in space.
It didn’t take long for them to clear this up though, as Finnan just stayed tight to Ronaldinho and Gerrard began following Zambrotta back into defence. This can be seen in Barcelona’s opening goal:
Gerrard gets a touch on the ball but it bounces back off Zambrotta’s foot into his path, enabling the full-back to nip past Liverpool’s captain and send in a cross. The scouser was in the right position to defend against the overlapping full-back though, and would have stopped Barcelona’s attack were it not for some pinball physics.
While Liverpool quelled the threat posed by Messi, Ronaldinho and Zambrotta after some teething problems, Deco’s runs from midfield posed a constant issue throughout the first half, as his goal perfectly illustrated. It wasn’t so bad when Ronaldinho and Messi tucked inside, as then the back four could easily stay narrow, but if the pair hugged the touchline, Finnan and Arbeloa were forced into quite wide positions so that they could stay close to them. This left spaces between the full-backs and centre-backs for Deco to make runs through, constantly popping up with perfect timing to force one of the defenders into scrambling across.
Barcelona also had some success building up through the middle. Thiago Motta wasn’t as calm on the ball as he would become in his later years and the attention of Kuyt and Bellamy was more than enough to force more than one heavy touch from the Brazilian, although he was often able to drag them off to one side, opening up space for Xavi Hernandez or Deco to drop in alongside him and collect the ball from the defenders. It was best when Xavi dropped back as this allowed Deco to stay in a more attacking position, where he could make those threatening runs that Xavi didn’t really have the skillset to replicate.
Without the threat of Eto’o’s pace to worry about, Liverpool wanted to press Barcelona high up the pitch, however Barcelona generally found it quite easy to play around it in the first half.
Benitez also came up with a plan to trap Barcelona in their third: “We wanted to allow Carles Puyol, their captain, to have the ball. He was playing as a left-sided centre-back, despite being right-footed. If we could cut off his options for a pass, we would be able to stifle a lot of Barcelona’s attacks.” This didn’t work in practice though, as Puyol would simply look to move the ball on quickly as soon as he received it – not giving Liverpool the time to cut off his options in possession.
The goal had been a blip in an otherwise excellent defensive performance from Liverpool, however they also weren’t creating a lot themselves. Their main idea was to counter-attack, aiming to catch Barcelona’s full-backs high up the pitch, however the passes forward were often too far ahead of the intended recipient or, if they did receive it, they would hit it too far ahead of themselves trying to get space to cross – either way Barcelona’s defenders could come across and sweep up the ball. Bellamy was the only one who consistently got in behind Barcelona, but too often his runs were poorly timed, getting flagged offside.
Wanting to avoid Barcelona’s high press, especially Arbeloa getting caught on his weaker foot, Liverpool’s defenders generally looked to hit the ball long, however Motta would frequently win the headers.
Finnan proved a threat out on the right flank though, and thanks to him Liverpool equalised just before half-time. Liverpool sent a long ball forward but Rafael Marquez moved up to contest it with Kuyt as well as Motta – it was a nothing flick-on by Kuyt that Puyol easily mopped up, nevertheless Liverpool won a free-kick for the way Marquez and Motta had both clashed with the Dutchman. Liverpool spread the ball wide to Finnan, who crossed it to Bellamy at the back post. Victor Valdes caught the Welshman’s header yet seemed to carry the ball across the line and, with the goalkeeper having quickly pushed it out of his hands to get it as far away from the goalline as possible, Kuyt was on hand for a tap-in. Bellamy had already wheeled away in celebration though, practising his golf swing.
After half-time, Liverpool tightened up their pressing. When Xavi dropped back alongside Motta, Mohamed Sissoko stuck tighter to him, so that he couldn’t turn out and pass. This left a gap in the centre for Barcelona’s defenders to play a pass through, however as Liverpool’s defenders were already sticking tight to the attackers in expectation of them receiving the ball to feet, this didn’t really pose any threat to Liverpool’s defence that they hadn’t already been dealing with. As a result, Barcelona struggled to work the ball out of defence and force Liverpool back into their own half.
Ten minutes into the half Motta was substituted for Andres Iniesta and not long after that Xavi was replaced by Ludovic Giuly, with Barcelona switching to some kind of 4-2-3-1. Messi came more into the centre, however Arbeloa remained stuck to him so the teenager still couldn’t get any space to work in. Riise’s willingness to drop in at left-back meant that Arbeloa didn’t have to worry about leaving the left flank exposed, although Juliano Belletti rarely got forward to pose the same attacking threat as Zambrotta on the opposite wing.
Despite upgrading Motta for Iniesta, Barcelona couldn’t easily build up through the midfield anymore. Sissoko would still step up and stop his direct opponent from turning out, while the double pivot didn’t have the same effect as the single had. Previously Kuyt and Bellamy had been simply trying to stop Motta, staying relatively close and trying to block passes into him, and had then been outflanked by Xavi or Deco dropping back. Now Deco and Iniesta were starting deep, so Liverpool’s attacking pair split up and took one man each, one sticking close and blocking the passes into Deco and the other doing the same to Iniesta. Deco playing deeper also meant he wasn’t able to make runs forward as he had before, replaced by the easier to track Giuly, who was lacking the supply that Deco had received in the first half.
Iniesta may have been a creative upgrade on Motta but he was also significantly weaker in the air, and neither he or Deco were natural holding players. Liverpool found themselves pressing more successfully in the second half, spending more time in Barcelona’s half, yet the removal of Motta made only worsened the situation for Barcelona. Liverpool could now send long balls forward and have a much greater chance of them not just getting headed back in the other direction, making it easier to pin back Barcelona, while their counter-attacking runs weren’t getting picked up by the midfielders and they were able to break in behind Barcelona’s attacking full-backs with greater frequency.
Two of these issues are seen clearly in the build-up to Liverpool’s winning goal. Zambrotta is positioned high up the pitch, allowing Liverpool’s attack to outnumber Barcelona’s defence and Liverpool take advantage. Finnan plays the ball in behind Zambrotta to Gerrard, while Bellamy makes a run behind Puyol, dragging Marquez wide to make space for Kuyt in the centre. Deco has checked his shoulder multiple times and is aware of the danger but is reluctant to drop back to fill in the gap before it’s too late: Gerrard plays in Kuyt and, although a heavy touch and Valdes coming swiftly out ruins the chances of a goal for the Dutchman, the loose ball falls to Bellamy, who squares the ball to his karaoke foe Riise to take the lead.
Benitez soon brought on former Barcelona man Boudewijn Zenden and Jermaine Pennant for Sissoko and Bellamy, switching to a 4-5-1 that shored up the midfield and added pace on the counter. Liverpool dropped off to protect their lead but Barcelona couldn’t muster any reply, forced into taking a goal disadvantage and two away goals to Anfield for the second leg, where they were knocked out of the competition as Liverpool made it to the final again.