Dubai: All eyes will be on Camp Nou on Wednesday as Liverpool aim to add another historic chapter to their European football exploits.
Jurgen Klopp and his band of high-flying Reds travel to take on the might of Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League semi-finals first leg, while they are also hot on the heels of Manchester City in the Premier League title race with only two games to go.
While this season will go down in history as one of Liverpool’s most impressive — they are in the Champions League semis for the second successive year and have already racked up more points than they ever have before in the Premier League era — such is the fickle nature of football, they can still end up empty-handed come the end of the season.
Klopp has already expressed his pride in his players this term, regardless of how many — if any — trophies they pick up in the coming weeks.
“If we win it, we win it. If we don’t there are no regrets as long as we give our best,” he said.
One thing that could prove crucial to Liverpool’s hopes as they go up against the formidable Barca strike force of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez is the return to form of Egyptian striker Mohammad Salah.
Salah and Sadio Mane both scored twice as Liverpool cruised past Huddersfield 5-0 at Anfield on Friday and Salah edged back in front in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot after a lean spell in front of goal.
Salah has now scored more goals (69) in his first 100 games than any other player in Liverpool’s history and Klopp says his handling of this ‘tricky second season’ is an even bigger achievement.
“It’s such an important season for him,” said Klopp. “After a flying season in which nearly every shot was a goal, then being assessed by everyone, is it just a one-season thing? Keeping that level is an even bigger achievement than scoring 40 goals last season.”
Salah is ably assisted in attack by Mane and Roberto Firmino as Klopp has strengthened an already talented squad.
The midfield was bolstered by the arrival of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri last summer, and the back four have been transformed thanks to the imperious Virgil van Dijk, who has turned a once-leaky defence into a watertight unit.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson hardly have the superstar status of Messi just yet, but the defenders could play just as vital a part as the Barcelona captain as they perform the role of wingers as much as defenders.
Without their runs up and down the flanks, Mane and Salah would not have the freedom they are enjoying to get into vital scoring positions.
Now comes the big test of the duo against Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
Inspired by the sublime Messi, Barca have scored more than 130 goals in all competitions already this term and wrapped up the Spanish title at the weekend.
As for Messi and his fellow Barca old-guard, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, this could be their best, and perhaps final chance of more Champions League success — given that the final will be against either surprise-package Tottenham Hotspur or young upstarts Ajax.
Messi, Busquets and Pique have played in 34 Champions League semi-finals matches between them and while the likelihood is there will be more to come, nothing is guaranteed. If the next takes as long to arrive as this one, Messi will be almost 36.
The Argentine may never have a true successor at Barca, but four Champions League titles, one fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo, means there is a sense of unfinished business.
While he acknowledges the threat posed by Messi, Suarez and company, Robertson believes Liverpool should stick to their guns.
“We know we’ll have our hands full defensively, but we all defend as a team and we attack as a team. If me and Trent have time to go forward, we will do it. It’s not going to stop us,” Robertson said.
“We know that we can create goals and chances, so why change that? But look, we will learn from the game and move from that and see how it pans out.
“It’s a challenge we all look forward to.”
For all the progress made, Klopp is yet to win a trophy since arriving at Anfield in October 2015.
The pain of missing out on the Premier League once more despite a record-breaking campaign would be eased substantially if there was a Champions League final against Tottenham or Ajax to look forward to on June 1.
And beating Barca would show just how far they have come, even if the silverware is not there to prove it.
— With inputs form agencies