How do I phrase this? I’m fucking ecstatic. Yeah, that’ll do.
The formation was a bit of a surprise, once again proving Rafa Benitez is completely unable to predict, and a fairly good tactician to boot. It looked like a standard 4-4-2, with Gerrard on the right, Riise in midfield, and most surprisingly, Arbeloa at left back. In my defense, I had no clue Arbeloa’s versatility extended to playing on the left flank, and there was also the hype from his last time out against Ronaldinho. This is why I very, very infrequently question the gaffer, especially in Europe.
But early on, questions over the starting line-up, which Sky Sports incessantly harped on before the game, looked valid. Honestly, it seemed like it could be a horror show the way it started. Liverpool had an opening in the first five minutes, but after that Barca looked like they could run riot. In the 14th minute, with Liverpool scrambling at the back, Arbeloa was drawn inside and Riise couldn’t get back quick enough, and Deco put a free header into the bottom right corner from Zambrotta's pretty cross.
And the onslaught didn’t stop. Barca continued to look dangerous, Liverpool continued to rack up silly fouls giving Barca free kicks (how fussy was that ref?), and a second goal looked likely. But against the run of play, two minutes before halftime, Liverpool drew level. After another nothing foul, this time going Liverpool’s way, the free kick found Ronaldinho lagging in getting back, and the cross in from the right, in acres of space, found Bellamy at the back post. His header caught Valdes off-balance, and both the keeper and the ball slid backwards over the line. In any event, Kuyt was there for the rebound. Poor keeping, but Liverpool will obviously take it any way it comes.
The goal certainly unsettled the home team, and they were never able to impose themselves as they did in the first half. And Liverpool took advantage. They grew in stature throughout the second half, and the summation of Barca’s disarray was in the 68th minute, when Victor Valdes picked up a back pass in his penalty area. Gerrard’s free kick was saved, Kuyt then headed over, and there was always the feeling Barca could nick one on the counter (an omnipresent feeling when Barca’s playing and when Liverpool’s away), but the second goal came soon after in the 72nd minute. Marquez attempted to head clear after Kuyt’s first touch was blocked off by Valdes, and it fell right to Bellamy, who coolly found Riise open, and John Arne made no mistake.
And how lovely is it that Bellamy and Riise scored the goals, with Bellamy assisting on Riise’s. Just goes to show that the Liverpool tradition of bust-ups before big wins lives on. It had to be them, didn’t it? And Riise with his right foot…
As before the second goal, there was still a fear Barca could snatch one. As happened the majority of the game, they received free kicks for offenses that certainly wouldn’t be fouls in England, and Deco put one off the post, but it wasn’t to be, and Liverpool held on for the final 20 or so minutes.
It’s tough to pick out a man of the match, but I’m going with Sissoko, who did everything asked of him in midfield. Barca got very little in the center of the park after halftime. Both Xavi and Motta were taken off, and it was partly due to his influence, although Rijkaard is going to be absolutely excoriated in the Spanish media for his changes. But Sissoko tackled like a madman, and it was utterly frightening to see him go off with 10 minutes left. I’ve not seen anything on his injury yet, let’s hope it doesn’t take the gloss off of tonight.
Also, Carragher was also immense at the back, cutting out a lot of opportunities, while Reina was also quick to the ball and in form. Bellamy looked threatening running at pace at Barca's backline, and it was a superb assist for Riise's goal, in addition to his own. Arbeloa and Riise made up for early mistakes, and Riise once again showed he’s better in big games and up in midfield. Agger showed a much cooler head and quicker feet than against Newcastle. There’s little criticism of anyone in the team today, and it’s hard to single players out for praise. Pleased all around.
This is a great result for Liverpool, and I’m absolutely over the moon, but it’s worth remembering there’s still a second leg. Yes, it’s to be played at Anfield, but this is Barcelona we’re talking about. They have the ability to undo anyone, anywhere. But a 2-1 advantage is a far shout better than 1-2, 0-0, or 1-1, any of which I probably would have taken before the game. Thankfully, you can't settle for scorelines beforehand.
The second leg should certainly be a treat.