It may not feel like it, considering Barcelona’s aura since the turn of the century and the spectre of Lionel Messi that seems to haunt plenty of English side’s Champions League graveyards, but no country has knocked La Blaugrana out in the ‘knockout rounds’ of the competition more.
While this is slightly complicated by the various incarnations of the tournament’s format, all in all, English teams have come out on top six times against Barca in ‘knockout’ fixtures, beating out both their Italian and Spanish counterparts, who have notched a comparatively meagre five KOs.
Of these heroic, St. George’s flag-carrying bastions of the English game, Chelsea and Manchester United stand out with two, with Liverpool and Leeds rounding out the total with a couple of solitary wins.
Yet it is also true that Barcelona have won more Champions League games against English sides – 27 – than any other side have against clubs from one nation. Go figure.
The lads from Leeds were the first to puncture the Barca mystique, beating them 3-2 on aggregate in the 1975 semi final, with the 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp in the second leg deemed by some as the dirtiest match ever played. While this is hyperbolic – the Battle of Santiago would certainly have something to say about it – it definitely wasn’t pretty.
And, even though the supposedly free-flowing Spaniards gave as good (if not better) as they got on that occasion – Johan Cruyff could’ve been sent off at least three times – the Yorkshiremen did set a blueprint from which their compatriots would follow for generations to come. Get at Barca, and they can be got.
Naturally, the game has changed in countless ways since those helter-skelter, legs-a-cropper, Chopper Harris, Norman Hunter days, but the sentiment is clear. Go hard, or go home. It wasn’t just about physicality, though. Defensive fortitude was a must.
As Leeds midfielder Peter Lorimer recounted in the Daily Mail ahead of Chelsea’s semi final second leg at the Nou Camp in 2012: “Barcelona had to score twice, just to take it to extra time, and that wasn’t going to happen. No-one got two goals back on Leeds United in those days.”
And yet, that rule book would be, if not ripped up, then tested in the 1998/99 season – the next time Barca were undone (…well) by English opposition. “1999 you say, wasn’t that when” – NOT NOW OLE.
Anyway, in that campaign, the Red Devils played the Catalan side twice in the group stage – though the second clash basically bore the prize of a quarter final berth, thus classifying it (in some Wiki eyes, which is good enough for me) as a last 16 elimination game – with an aggregate score of 6-6.
Semantics aside, this is relevant, because there was no batting down of the hatches here. Indeed, after the historic first leg at Old Trafford – which some still call the greatest game Old Trafford has ever seen – Sir Alex Ferguson proclaimed it ‘the perfect football match’.
He explained: “Both teams trying to win with scant regard for the consequences. That’s how football should be played and in a sense this match was a throwback to the days before detailed organisation of teams.”
So, the wheel – NOT NOW OLE – was reinvented, the blueprints updated. In 2000/01, Leeds returned to their winning formula of 25 years prior, but this was in the group stage proper and, even though Wikipedia have that down as a ‘last 32’ exit, I drew the line there. C’mon, this isn’t the Europa League.
In any case, it wasn’t till Chelsea read from both scripts in 2004/05 that the La Liga outfit were hampered once more by Rose-bearing Englishman. And it is probably in this side that Liverpool will find the most inspiration, at least tactically (their own heroes of 2007/08 will provide the mental motivation), as tough a pill as that may be for Jurgen Klopp to swallow.
As Jose Mourinho recently alluded to in a gloriously snarky rant on beIN SPORTS, that Chelsea side seems to have been retroactively tarnished with the brush of post-Real Madrid Mourinho. But they were not just the load-bearing defensive juggernauts that some paint them as today.
Sure, they remain the best defensive side in Premier League history (conceding just 15 goals) but they also possessed an attack bolstered by flair and bite, as this tie showed. Indeed, their team building in the prior summer – though built for different times and different tactics – bares plenty of comparisons to the Reds of today. For Alisson, see Petr Cech. For Virgil van Dijk, see Ricardo Carvalho. For Naby Keita, see…a mix of Tiago and Arjen Robben?
Even their formation was the same, albeit with a completely different focal point in Didier Drogba.
The first leg will likely bear little insight for the Reds – the Blues were comfortable in defence, rope-a-doping Barca with a wonderfully worked counter-attacking goal in the 33rd minute before Drogba was wrongly sent off in the 56th, changing the complexity and scoreline in the process.
So, La Blagrauna headed to Stamford Bridge – like they have so many other stadiums (in fact, Liverpool are the only English side to ever win at the Nou Camp in European competition, and have done it twice) – with a 2-1 lead.
But, turning up all the books, Mourinho’s side came flying out the traps, scoring three goals inside the first 19 minutes. Of course, Barca regrouped to get two back with an iconic brace from Ronaldinho, but John Terry secured progression (a progression that would ultimately be halted by Liverpool in the semi finals) with a 76th minute header.
Their opponents have changed as well, becoming more conservative under Ernesto Valverde and far more defensively sound. While the midfield may be more bypass-able then it ever has been – looking at you, Sergio Busquets – the five men behind them are underratedly solid.
Indeed, as Ivan Rakitic, as quoted by the Metro, acknowledged in the pre-match festivities ahead of Wednesday night’s semi final first leg, this upcoming clash could represent a reversal in roles between his side and the English.
“We can’t allow them to run at us, we have to keep them away from our goal,” he proclaimed.
They thus appear more than capable of reproducing the effervescence of Chelsea in that second leg in both fixtures – perhaps feeding off that iconic 0-1 Rafa Benitez masterclass at the Nou Camp in 2008. But it will be in their dealing with the inevitable sieges that befall their defence that will truly test their mettle.
This much-lauded defence has rarely been tested or exposed this season, with only Manchester City really doing so domestically, but both Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli showed in the group stage that frailties could be found. This Barca team is arguably less dynamic than both those sides, but in Messi they have the game’s most potent attacking threat.
Again, Leeds’ rattling of Cruyff is a pointer for that particular problem, but from Old Trafford in 1998, to Stamford Bridge in 2005 to the Nou Camp in 2008, the pointers are everywhere for Klopp and co. They just need to be enacted now.