Situated on the broadcasting gantry within Anfield’s main stand, Oliver Miller offers his view on Liverpool’s Champions League match against AS Roma.
34 years is a long time in football. 90 minutes can be also. Especially when playing against a Liverpool side that have scored 33 goals in 10 Champions League matches this season and house the most potent attacking trio in European football. That final against that opposition in that stadium still irks Roma supporters. It doesn’t wither with age. If anything, it grows. The chance for revenge came some three decades later, but arguably it hurt just as bad.
“All-inclusive football” was what Jurgen Klopp called it and he wasn’t wrong. From the pitch to the stands and back again. This was a collective effort of epic proportions. And it needed to be. Roma weren’t expecting to be here, somehow – coming from three goals down again Barcelona – they managed it. An unknown quantity in an intriguing encounter that combined history with present-day subplots; there were plenty of questions to be answered.
The answers became apparent fairly early on in what was a remarkable Champions League match. Quite how Roma still have a glimmer of hope to grasp onto is hard to understand. Eusebio Di Francesco’s side were well and truly bamboozled by the attacking masterclass that Liverpool conjured up. The Roma manager said, 24 hours prior to kickoff in his media conference, that his team has “acquired two systems of play – a back four and a back three – and the decision on which to use will be decided in due course.”
The decision ended up being the wrong one. The choice to play with a back three and essentially man-mark Liverpool’s red arrows smelt of naivety. Also the fact that Di Francesco urged his defence to play with an extraordinary high line verged on being football suicide. It was simply the wrong tactics, against the wrong opponents on the wrong night. Liverpool duly obliged to exploit it.
Five goals was by no means an exaggeration of Liverpool’s dominance – it could have easily been six or seven. But the match revolved – not for the first time this season – around one special player. The fact that he used to play in the Italian capital didn’t sweeten the pill for the travelling fans.
Mohamed Salah walked off the pitch on 75 minutes having done his work. Scoring two goals and assisting another two somehow don’t do his performance justice. Neither do the numbers, stats and records that he has broken that are bandied around every passing week. The sheer joy that he brings to Liverpool supporters and neutrals everywhere is what is truly special about Salah. The humility with which he does it all only adds to the warmth that he receives.
On a night that saw him face his former club, he took no prisoners even if they used to be his team-mates. The three at the back system aided the way in which Salah could work – the gap between Aleksander Kolarov and left centre-back Juan Jesus was regularly exploited and by the end the former needed saving from himself. As with these type of Liverpool performances that resemble a wave constantly wearing down a shoreline with the cohesive pressure that can do serious damage, the goals soon follow. Add in the noise from the crowd and Roma had stormy conditions to deal with. They didn’t know what it was and they didn’t like it.
The first 20 minutes weren’t far from an even contest – blood and thunder, yes, but equal nevertheless. Both sides tried to feel each other out. Liverpool took some time to work out Roma’s system and they were rocking in the early stages. But once they settled, they attacked it as one. The hosts’ lack of shots between the eighth and 28th minute – zero – was more than compensated by the 10 that followed during the 17 minutes prior to halftime. Two of them resulted in goals but there could have been more.
Liverpool attacked from every angle. The din was extraordinary and Salah was in total control. Sadio Mane had three sights during Liverpool’s dominant spell – missing the first two over the bar before scoring the third only for it to be rightly disallowed for offside. The movement of the front three was difficult to keep up with never mind defend against, and it was clear that Roma were struggling with the pace that Liverpool were setting. Dejan Lovren headed against the crossbar whilst Alisson was forced into a number of testing saves – a Liverpool goal looked inevitable.
Salah managed to get it and it was a peach – a curling, diagonal shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar – but the second was not too bad either. Roberto Firmino slipped the pass through the middle – rather belatedly it was felt in real-time – but once Salah reached the ball first there was a sense of inevitability about the following seconds. Composure, calmness and quality were all present in equal measure as he chipped the ball over Alisson almost in slow motion.
The half-time score was one to savour for the home supporters but there was an agreement that the leg – let alone the tie – was still far from over. The fact that this is Liverpool. The fact that this is Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool means that they will always go in search for more goals – the urge from the crowd was therefore rather redundant. A clean sheet was important but goals are what count in Klopp’s mind – the more the merrier it seems.
Salah was the nucleus of the fervent Liverpool attack. Though Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum – a first-half substitute for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who suffered a season-ending knee injury – worked tirelessly and dominated their area of the pitch; Daniele De Rossi struggled to cope with them throughout. If the front three are the life and soul of this Liverpool side, then the midfield trio are the beating heart. All three had a reputable claim to being man of the match.
Although, that was only ever going to go to one man. And soon enough he was at it again. This time providing, rather than finishing, for Firmino after leaving Jesus for dead. The songs from Liverpool’s famous back catalogue were sung with that bit more fervour; the scarves rotated that bit quicker. In fact, some were doing the number of revolutions that would almost propel their owner off the ground. Salah was doing his own kind of propelling when he set up Mane for his goal.
Rather surprisingly, the Egyptian was nowhere to be seen during the build-up to Firmino’s second of the night and Liverpool’s fifth – a header that appeared to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of this semi-final. And not long after, he was gone. Substituted with just over 10 minutes to play. Fully deserved of his standing ovation, he trundled off the pitch as if he’d just beat his mates in a game that was far too easy for him … well he actually had.
Liverpool’s performance after Salah’s departure was telling. A collective fatigue had descended – akin to days earlier at West Brom; then their heads were turned by this semi-final clash, now the final could have well done the job. The momentum shifted from Liverpool to Roma in a rather bizarre finish to the match which at least gave the travelling Roma fans something to celebrate.
Lovren misread a floating ball and allowed Dzeko to creep behind him and put the ball past Loris Karius with a splendid finish. A second came only minutes later. A Radja Nainggolan shot struck the arm of Milner and Dr Felix Brych pointed straight to the penalty spot. Substitute Diego Perotti converted, giving Roma a narrow lifeline for the return.
A hush descended around Anfield. The crowd struggled to know what to make of the result. How were this Roma side – dominated for pretty much all of the match, with tactics askew and players on a different wavelength to the manager – able to convert a five-goal disadvantage to a three in a matter of minutes? When all was said and done, it was a result that left Liverpool in a good position – one which they would undoubtedly taken pre-match.
But perhaps more encouraging was the overall performance for much of the match. In the highest scoring Champions League semi-final in over two decades, Liverpool shone and controlled it more than anyone could have anticipated. Next, is the return to the scene of the crime of over 30 years ago. It’s Liverpool’s to lose and the hurt for Roma may have to continue for some years more.