Feature Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Liverpool had to score five times, led by a sumptuous Mohammed Salah, before Roma finally woke up and remembered they were playing a Champions League semifinal at Anfield Road. Late goals by Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti saved the Giallorossi’s face, leaving a feeble qualification hope alive, but it will take another epic remuntada for Eusebio Di Francesco to come back from last night’s 2-5.
People at Anfield Road saw three matches in one yesterday. The first one played by Roma against their former striker Mohammed Salah, with the Egyptian winning 2-0 literally by himself. The 25-year-old, 43 goals in 47 appearances with the Reds so far, added another feather to his already sensational seasonal cap, with a devastating performance spiced up by two goals and two assists.
The second match featured an overflowing Liverpool delivering three additional goals to the worst possible version of Roma, the Giallorossi showcasing a horrific collection of all their worst European negative clichés:
Roma whose legs start shaking as soon as they step foot in a passionate British stadium; Roma that let it go as soon as they go down by one goal; Roma which experience one of their inexplicable blackouts that in the past years costed them seven goals from Manchester United and Bayern Munich, as well as six from Barcelona.
The last game started with just ten minutes to go, and saw Roma prevailing 2-0 and pushing for a third goal that would have made next week’s second leg match at Stadio Olimpico an extremely exciting one to see. This way instead, with Roma coming home from Liverpool with a three-goal gap, the retour match will be only an “entertaining” one.
Because yes, Roma’s remuntada in the quarterfinals showed us that everything is possible in calcio – moreover a comeback from a three-goal deficit. But there is a crucial difference between the 1-4 conceded to Barcelona, and tonight’s 2-5 suffered at Anfield Road. The Giallorossi had left the Camp Nou with the bitter sensation that there was something not fair in that match outcome – which was propitiated by two unlucky own goals.
But last night, Roma were totally annihilated by Jurgen Klopp’s Reds, crushed by a team which set a game pace the Giallorossi could simply not keep up with, overwhelmed by the pressure cast by a red tidal wave of home supporters filling Anfield’s boiling bowl.
The way Roma can’t seem to handle the tension of the most passionate British temples of football evidences their lack of maturity and experience. The way they flaked off in Anfield as soon as Liverpool changed their pace frighteningly recalled the notorious 1-7 collapse the club suffered at Old Trafford at the hands of Manchester United. And that was 10 years ago…
Still, the first chance of the game was for the Giallorossi, with Aleksander Kolarov exploding one of his terrific left foot shots from afar. The ball crashed into Loris Karius’ crossbar after bending Liverpool goalkeeper’s hands. That came right after Jurgen Klopp was forced to operate his first substitution, recalling a badly-injured Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Not a great start indeed for the Reds, which however took full control of their home ground as soon as they started hitting the gas. Sadiò Mane didn’t seem in one of his greatest nights, and missed two easy chances. When he finally hit the target in the 34th minute, referee Felix Brych disallowed his goal due to an offside.
However, that was just the prelude to Salah’s first pearl of the night. Roma’s former striker received a pass by Firmino, shifted the ball into his left foot just inside the box, and curled it into the top far corner of the goal. Alla Del Piero, Italians would say: The way Alex Del Piero used to score some of his most iconic goals.
Salah’s reaction was touching: The 25-year-old was playing for the Giallorossi no more than nine months ago, and, far from celebrating, he theatrically folded his hands to apologize to his former supporters from Roma. A nice gesture, which however didn’t stop him from continuing the beating.
Liverpool’s next ten minutes were brutal, the ball possession trend recording a merciless 68% in favor of Jurgen Klopp’s side. Alisson saved what he could, saw a header by Dejan Lovren hitting his crossbar, then had to concede another goal in the 45th minute, with Salah chipping the ball past him to make the best out of a perfect vertical pass by Firmino.
At that point, Mohammed Salah was almost embarrassed. His face was like “oh, s**t”, and the hands raised up to ask forgiveness became two. The new combination Firmino-Salah came at the end of a lightning fast counterattack from the Reds, but the way Kostas Manolas let the ball bounce past him at midfield clearly showed how flaccid the Giallorossi’s grip on the match was being. Byrch’s half time whistle likely saved Roma from the worst.
…For 15 minutes at least, as things quickly got worse for Eusebio Di Francesco’s band as soon as teams switched sides. Roma’s coach tried to shake things up, substituting a disappointing Cengiz Under with Patrick Schick, but the next chance was again for Liverpool, with Firmino taking advantage of a new mistake by Manolas to serve Mane. This time, it was the assistant referee’s waving flag to save the Giallorossi, as it caught the Senegalese striker in offside.
But Salah had not finished yet. After scoring twice, it was time for the Egyptian to pay back, and serve some assists to his teammates. The first one came at the end of a progression on the right flank, the ball sent in for an easy tap in by Mane. The second one was, well…just exaggerated, with Salah heading towards Juan Jesus, and feinting in the box two-three times to literally dash past him. Firmino was ready to capture his pass, and to convert it into Liverpool’s 4-0.
With still 30 minutes to go, the Wolves clearly appeared terrified at the prospect of another European collapse, and started to miss even the most basic controls. Alisson failed to block an easy cross, and risked delivering the ball ready for a fifth goal conversion. Roma somehow managed to clear the ball away in the occasion, but the fatal rendevouz with the cinquina was only slightly delayed.
In the 69th minute, James Milner delivered a cross from the right corner spot, and Firmino had all the time in the world to take off, and produce a not-even-so-powerful header. But a paralyzed Roma defensive line stood still in block, Alessandro Florenzi clumsily let the ball pass, Alisson was taken by surprise, and the pokerissimo was served.
When Klopp decided to recall Salah in the 76th minute, legitimate doubts arose as of whether he was doing that to concede his striker the most deserved of standing ovations, or just to “reshuffle the teams,” like kids do when they play in the courtyard and there’s an evident team mismatch.
What is sure is that, as soon as the Egyptian star left the pitch, a new game started, the one where the Giallorossi finally raised their head, and hit two times to make the retour match of next week at least worth watching. First, Edin Dzeko caught a long-range pass, and slammed the ball past Karius. Then, Diego Perotti converted a pretty generous penalty awarded for a hand ball in Liverpool’s box.
Klopp was legitimately furious at his boys, as the Giallorossi fans on the stands started to believe in a new miracle, and indeed Roma went close to score a shocking third goal. At full time, coach Eusebio Di Francesco promptly remarked that another come back is possible.
But the verdict from the pitch last night rather confirmed that President James Pallotta’s club is still one step below the European elite, when it comes to fortitude, maturity, and capacity to face those games that matter the most with the right approach.
April 24, 2018 – Champions League 2017-18 Semifinal
SCORERS: 35′ Salah (L), 45′ Salah (L), 56′ Mané (L), 61′ Firmino (L), 69′ Firmino (L), 81′ Dzeko (R), 85′ Perotti (R, pen.)
|LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Lovren, Robertson; Oxlade-Chamberlain (18′ Wijnaldum), Henderson, Milner; Salah (75′ Ings), Firmino (92′ Klavan), Mané (Mignolet, Clyne, Moreno, Solanke) Coach: Klopp|
|ROMA (3-4-1-2): Alisson; Fazio, Manolas, Juan Jesus (67′ Perotti); Florenzi, De Rossi (67′ Gonalons), Strootman, Kolarov; Nainggolan; Ünder (46′ Schick), Dzeko (Skorupski, Peres, Pellegrini, El Shaarawy) Coach: Di Francesco|
REFEREE: Byrch (Germany)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Alexander-Arnold, Lovren, Henderson (L), Juan Jesus, Fazio (R); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 4′