Feature Photo: Lluis Gene/Getty Images
Some football fans live their whole life waiting for a night like this. Then, that moment suddenly comes, when the irrational becomes possible, and football turns into epic. Roma did what seemed impossible to do: Beating Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 3-0 to push them out of the Champions League, and advance to the semifinals of the top European competition for the second time in their history.
Goals by Edin Dzeko, Daniele De Rossi, and Kostas Manolas equalised Barca’s triple lead from one week ago, and promoted the Giallorossi on away goals after a 4-4 aggregate score, at the end of a match that will legitimately earn a place in the Champions League hall of fame. Like Deportivo La Coruna-Milan in 2004. Like last year’s Barcelona-PSG.
Just one year ago indeed, the Blaugrana had performed a spectacular comeback after losing the first leg 0-4 in Paris. But tonight, they found themselves on the receiving end of a legendary remuntada. How funny is this game…
Eusebio Di Francesco, first year as Roma coach, led the Giallorossi to an almost unprecedented achievement, an even more shocking feat considering the staggering performances his side had put together recently, and moreover after the latest, disappointing 0-2 home loss to Fiorentina from last Saturday.
But it was the full Roma squad to deserve a mention of honor during tonight’s battle at the Stadio Olimpico. From a monumental Edin Dzeko, whose goal at the Camp Nou last Wednesday assumed an even bigger importance in view of tonight’s outcome, and who steered the match in the right direction, scoring again after just six minutes.
To captain Daniele De Rossi, who served him a golden assist, and personally converted the penalty that brought the Wolves on 2-0 – redeeming himself after the unfortunate own goal that had broken the balance to Roma’s disadvantage in the first leg.
And how not to mention defender Kostas Manolas, whose header earned Roma the 3-0 and set the Olimpico on fire, and whose feet cleared the ball away in at least two dangerous occasions, when Barca was charging head down in a desperate attempt to wake up from the nightmare.
And moreover, from Aleksander Kolarov, an iron locomotive running up and down the left flank, to Patrick Schick – a somewhat colorless presence among Roma’s lineup in Serie A – whom finally made an impact tonight. Without forgetting the so-called dodicesimo uomo (the “twelfth player”), a booming human wall of 50000 fans dressed in yellow and red, who pushed the Giallorossi towards this huge accomplishment, and will likely have a sleepless night of celebrations in the streets of the Capitale.
On the other side of the pitch, a frankly unrecognizable Barcelona, whose emblem were two free kicks shot into the stands by Messi, and where even key players like Andrès Iniesta and Gerard Piqué failed to live up to their name. For the Blaugrana, this is the third quarterfinals elimination in a row. What was negatively impressive tonight, was coach Ernesto Valverde boys’ incapacity to raise their head until it was too late.
The Wolves bit the match from its very beginning, catching by surprise an opponent whose 4-1 lead likely made them expect to enjoy their vacanze romane as a stroll in the park. Edin Dzeko was quick to grab a long-range pass by captain De Rossi in the 6th minute, defending the ball from Jordi Alba’s assault, and then taking advantage of both Samuel Umtiti and Marc André Ter Stegen’s hesitation, to deposit it into the net for the most unexpected of leads.
Patrick Schick made himself dangerous in two occasions (actually collecting more chances tonight than in his whole season so far…) with two headers than only narrowly missed the target. With the Blaugrana incapable to react, the Olimpico Stadium started to believe in miracles, especially when one of La Pulga’s free kick shots from just outside Roma’s box ended far far away…
With the clock striking minute 56, Dzeko put the cherry on the top of an already impressive game, that had seen him battling like a lion. The Bosnian giant, served by Radja Nainggolan, penetrated Valverde’s box and forced Piqué to knock him down. It was a crystal-clear foul, which earned the Spanish center back a yellow card, and sent Daniele De Rossi on the penalty spot.
Goalkeeper Ter Stegen timidly waved his hands as De Rossi run up, maybe trying to imitate goalie Bruce Grobbelaar’s infamous dance from the 1984 European Cup final – a nightmare still vivid in the memories of Roma supporters. But the Giallorossi’s captain was cold enough to convert the penalty and make it two for his side.
“Calma! Calma!”, coach Di Francesco promptly shouted, calling his boys to keeping it quiet, and maintain concentration. Needless to say, he will be the first one to lose it when Roma scores the decisive 3-0 goal a few minutes later.
But before that, defender Federico Fazio risked ruining everything with a borderline tackle that could have earned him a second booking. Referee Clément Turpin spared him. He didn’t do the same with Messi, who was waved a yellow at for pushing down Kolarov. Lionel Messi forced to spend a foul to prevent a counterattack: Another hint that things were definitely not going the usual way tonight.
Di Francesco sent in Stephan El Shaarawy and switched to a 3-4-3 module for the final assault, and the Faraone was quick to make an impact, catching a cross from the right by Alessandro Florenzi, to deliver a header that was parried back by Ter Stegen. But it was clear that airborne attacks were the key, and the lucky one materialized in the 75th minute, with a corner by substitute Cengiz Under.
The Turkish’s bend cross found Kostas Manolas’ perfect deflection – Manolas, who had been another protagonist of last week’s unfortunate own-goal fest at the Camp Nou, and redeemed himself anticipating Nélson Semedo to score the 3-0 goal that sent Roma to heaven.
Three goals down, and with 15 minutes still to play, Barcelona finally woke up, fueled by the fresh forces of Valverde’s substitutes Ousmane Dembélé and Paco Alcacer. However, none of the Blaugrana’s confused attacks posed any real threat to the goal defended by Alisson – except for the one created by the Brazilian goalie himself, with a kamikaze exit at the limit of his area to block Piqué.
Dembélé saw Alisson far from his posts, and tried a lob shot from afar, which ended above the crossbar, as Roma’s 50000 supporters caught their breath – before exploding with joy as referee Turpin called it a day after 94 minutes.
It’s going to be a long night in Rome, with celebrations for an achievement Romanisti had been waiting since 1984, and Roma-Barcelona will go down to history as one of the most shocking comebacks in the top European competition.
Moreover, there will be at least one representative from Italy in the final stages of this Champions League. The most unexpected of all.
April 10, 2018 – Champions League 2017-18 Quarter Finals
SCORERS: 6′ Dzeko, 58′ De Rossi (pen.), 75′ Manolas
|ROMA (3-4-1-2): Alisson; Manolas, Fazio, Juan Jesus; Florenzi, De Rossi, Strootman, Kolarov; Nainggolan (72′ El Shaarawy); Dzeko, Schick (dal 68′ Under) (Skorupski, Bruno Peres, Gerson, Pellegrini, Gonalons) Coach: Di Francesco|
|BARCELONA (4-4-2): Ter Stegen; Semedo (85′ Dembélé), Piqué, Umtiti, Jordi Alba; Sergi Roberto, Rakitic, Busquets (85′ Paco Alcacer), Iniesta (81′ André Gomes); Messi, Suarez (Cillessen, Vermaelen, Denis Suarez, Paulinho) Coach: Valverde|
REFEREE: Turpin (France)
NOTES: Attendance: 56575; Yellow Cards: Fazio, Juan Jesus (R), Messi, Piqué, Suarez (R); Extra Time: 1st Half 0′, 2nd Half 4′