BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi hit the 600-goal mark for Barcelona after scoring twice to lead the Spanish club to a 3-0 victory over Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal on Wednesday.
Luis Suarez opened the scoring against his former club in the 26th minute against a Liverpool side that spurned a couple of good chances to equalize during a strong spell after the halftime break. Messi then quashed the comeback effort when he doubled the lead from a rebound with 15 minutes left and followed that up by making it 600 career goals for Barcelona by curling in a perfectly struck free kick in the 82nd.
Liverpool dominated long stretches of the match but failed to finish its chances when it had the hosts on their back foot, especially early in the second half. Mohamed Salah still almost grabbed a valuable away goal for Liverpool late when he hit the post.
Coached by Ernesto Valverde, Barcelona is aiming to replicate the treble of titles it achieved in 2009 under Pep Guardiola and 2015 under Luis Enrique. It clinched the Spanish league title last weekend and plays Valencia in the Copa del Rey final on May 25.
Liverpool is trying to reach consecutive Champions League finals after losing last season 3-1 to Real Madrid.
Barcelona extended its unbeaten streak at home in Europe’s elite club competition to 32 straight matches, a run that started in 2013.
The return leg at Anfield is next Tuesday. In the other semifinal, Ajax won 1-0 at Tottenham in the first leg on Tuesday.
At Camp Nou, Liverpool created an up-tempo, back-and-forth game right from kickoff.
The speed of Salah and Sadio Mane caused Barcelona problems throughout and a flurry of jitters in its backline. A soft challenge by Jordi Alba left Salah with the ball in the box, Gerard Pique erred on more than one pass, and Sergi Roberto simply could not keep up with Mane.
But Messi was a force at the other end, causing Liverpool to bend and almost break on several solo runs right through the heart of its defense until it finally gave way in the final minutes.
Shortly after stewards quickly caught and removed a spectator who had run onto the pitch, Liverpool lost midfielder Naby Keita to an apparent upper leg injury. Jordan Henderson replaced him in the 24th.
But just when a lull in the action came, Barcelona found a way through to break the deadlock.
Arturo Vidal played the ball across the pitch to Philippe Coutinho, who knocked an innocent-looking pass back to Alba. But the next touch from Alba was a perfectly weighted long pass that was reminiscent of the best assists of former Barcelona great Xavi Hernandez.
The ball skipped past a backtracking Virgil Dan Dijk and met the run of Suarez, who slid and used the tip of his right boot to tuck the ball past goalkeeper Alisson Becker.
Mane had a great chance to hit right back in the 35th when he raced past Pique and Roberto to chase down a precise long ball from Henderson, only to volley it high.
Liverpool came out of the halftime break pressing for the equalizer and succeeded in the rarest of football feats: taking the ball away from Barcelona.
James Milner and Salah drew the first quality saves from Marc -Andre ter Stegen just after the restart, as the German goalie stretched to parry both their strikes. Milner then wasted a golden opportunity when Georginio Wijnaldum let a pass by Salah run through to the midfielder arriving unmarked in the center of the area, only for Milner to fire into Teg Stegen’s arms.
Seeing his team struggling, Valverde sent on defender Nelson Semedo for Coutinho, who unlike Suarez struggled against his former team.
Just as Liverpool was playing its best and threatening to equalize, Messi settled the match — and possibly the tie.
His first goal came with a bit of luck after Suarez kneed a volley against the bar and the ball fell straight to Messi, who chested it down and tapped it into an empty net.
The second was spectacular. After he was fouled by Fabinho outside the area, the Argentine forward struck a swerving, left-foot strike past a diving Alisson and into the corner of the net.
Goal No. 600 for Messi, making it one big hill to climb for Liverpool next week.