The Champions League, The European Cup, whatever you want to call it. It has a special place in the hearts of Liverpool fans. Having won the trophy five times up to now, making us the British team to have won it the most times, it is a famous old cup which this famous old club has become synonymous with. Rome, Wembley, Paris, Rome and Istanbul. They are cities which we remember fondly and we have heard about from our fathers and grandfathers. On Wednesday night Liverpool went back to Rome to try and secure our passage to this year’s final in Kiev, looking to give our own kids the memories we hold dear.
Jurgen Klopp changed his side again from the one that drew with Stoke at Anfield on Saturday. Out went Ragnar Klavan, Joe Gomez, Alberto Moreno and Danny Ings, in came Dejan Lovren, Andrew Robertson, James Milner and Sadio Mane. Adam Lallana had returned to training in the build-up to this game but was not deemed fit enough to play, while, of course, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been ruled out for the remained of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Eusebio De Francesco however only decided to make two changes from the side which thumped Chievo in the Serie A at the weekend. Out went Bruno Peres and Juan Jesus, who was tortured by Mohamed Salah at Anfield last week, in came Kostas Manolas and Alessandro Florenzi. While the domestic win on Saturday will have given De Francesco a chance to rest some of his players, it was also an opportunity for him to try a new system. The 3-4-2-1 he employed last week was clearly a tactical blunder. He used a 4-5-1 here similar to the one used at the weekend, bringing Patrick Schick into the starting line-up and Stephan El Shaarawy to add pace and width.
Roma predictably started off quickly and looked to force issue from the outset. It was clear that if Liverpool could ride out the early storm then there would be goals in the game for us and it would take just nine minutes for that goal to come. Sloppy play from Radja Nainngolan on the halfway line for Roma led to Roberto Firmino picking up the ball in the centre circle and running at the defence. As Manolas and Federico Fazio backed off, Sadio Mane made a dangerous run into the right channel. As he approached the box Firmino slipped the ball to Mane, who took one touch before calmly placing it beyond Alisson and into the bottom corner. Liverpool had a dream start and Kiev seemed within touching distance.
Roma began to come forward again and El Shaarawy seemed to be their main threat. Diego Perotti would have played in this game given the effect he had coming off the bench last week in the first leg, but an injury to the Argentinian meant it was down to El Shaarawy to fill in on the wing. He would play a hand in pulling Roma level on fifteen minutes. A deep cross into the box by Florenzi was headed back into the six yard box by the ex-Manchester United man. Dejan Lovren managed to get to the ball before Edin Dzeko but his blasted clearance hit James Milner in the face before bizarrely landing in the bottom corner of Loris Karius’ goal. Roma were back in the game but, in terms of the tie, nothing had changed – they still needed three goals to go through.
It was obvious that Liverpool were trying to pick Roma off on the counter, but with Mohamed Salah seemingly not firing on all cylinders and a lack of direct running from midfield usually provided by Oxlade-Chamberlain we were struggling to do so at the pace we were playing. However, on twenty five minutes Andy Robertson kept the ball in on the left from a switched pass by Milner. He did brilliantly to go past Florenzi and attack the near post before pulling it back to the edge of the six yard box where Sadio Mane was waiting. His side footed shot was parried behind by the leg of Alisson and Liverpool had a corner. Roma initially dealt with the set piece, but the ball spun into the air and Virgil Van Dijk rose above two defenders to keep the ball alive in the box. He flicked it onto Gini Wijnaldum, whose head the ball before Alisson could and put Liverpool 2-1 up. That was the goal that was needed, Roma now needed four just to take it to extra-time. Surely this tie was over now.
The remainder of the first period was practically played in Liverpool’s half, with infrequent breakouts from the back. For all Roma’s possession though they failed to do anything creative with the ball. This Liverpool defence has been criticise heavily this season for being unable to defend. That simply wasn’t the case in the first half of this game. Van Dijk’s leadership and composure shone through to all, including the rest of Liverpool’s back four. He was a beacon of tranquillity and has quickly become the man the rest of the defence looks to in shaky times. £75 million never looked so good.
When the referee finally blew for half-time the message from Jurgen Klopp would have been simple – keep doing what you’re doing. Roma still needed four more goals and, with the way Liverpool playing at the back, that didn’t look likely to happen. For Roma however they will have wanted to have been more expansive. For as well as were playing defensively this Liverpool team always has mistakes in them. Whether Roma had the ability to force those errors and test Liverpool’s character remained to be seen.
The home side came out in the second half with much greater intent and that paid off six minutes after the restart. A switched ball to El Shaarawy should have been cut out by Alexander-Arnold but the youngster completely missed his clearance. El Shaarawy now had acres of space to run into and was closing in on goal. As he entered the left corner of the Liverpool area he curled towards the bottom corner. Karius was equal to it but he only managed to palm the ball into the path of Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian took one touch before placing it beyond the onrushing Karius to draw Roma level. Maybe they had some real hope after all.
Roma continued to control the pay and were now creating chances. Liverpool were beginning to creak and Alexander-Arnold in particular was showing the vulnerabilities which Marcus Rashford and Wilfried Zaha have been able to capitalise on this season. Not long after the goal Dzeko was played through by Nainngolan. He got into the area and rounded Karius only to be brought down. Referee Damir Skomina blew his whistle but only for a free kick Liverpool’s way for offside against Dzeko. Replays showed the he was actually onside and Liverpool had got away with one. Not long after, a cross into the area from the Roma right wasn’t dealt with by Alexander-Arnold. His clearance in the six yard box hit Dzeko and bounced towards El Shaarawy. The winger looked certain to score from five yards out but his volley hit Alexander-Arnold before going over. Upon seeing the incident again the ball had clearly hit the right back on the hand and Roma should probably have had a penalty. Another massive let off for Liverpool.
With the clock ticking down and Giallorossi comeback looking unlikely, Liverpool’s luck would run out. On eighty six minutes Roma had possession on the edge of the Liverpool box. Looking content to sit in, The Reds didn’t close down the man in possession quickly enough and Maxime Gonalons layed it off to Nainngolan. From twenty two yards, Nainngolan wound up his right foot before burying it past Karius off the post. Roma now needed two more goals to take the game to extra time. Could they do it?
Liverpool were beginning to look comfortable and Roma looked like they knew the jig was up. In the last minute of stoppage time a long ball was sent towards substitute Cengiz Under in the area. He took one excellent touch which bounced up and hit a combination of the arm and hip of Ragnar Klavan, also on as a sub. Probably looking to even out his bad decisions, the referee pointed to the spot. Nainngolan stepped up again to smash the ball home and send Karius the wrong way. There was only one goal left to grab for the Italians but they weren’t given enough time to get it. Skomina blew the whistle from the kick off to confirm that Liverpool would grace another Champions League final, sparking wild celebrations in the away end.
To look at this game in isolation you would say that Liverpool have again collapsed when they should have shown more character. You could possibly say that there are defensive frailties and a shaky goalkeeper to blame. Even if you put it into context the signs aren’t good. We switched off when we shouldn’t have and almost let a tie, that should have actually been beyond all doubt at the final whistle of the first leg, slip away. Being rational and sensible goes against all this Liverpool side is about though. This is a fun, vibrant, mad, suicidal, homicidal, genocidal team, who take no concern in their own – or ours for that matter – mental well-being. We may not have scored more than the opposition tonight but we did over two games, and that is what has seen us go onto face holders Real Madrid in Kiev in three weeks time.