Champions League semi-finals. Liverpool is a club synonymous with this famous competition. We are the current British record holders for winning the competition the most times and have had many glorious Anfield nights on our way to European infamy. This opponent too, Roma, have provided us with one of our historical final victories. Went to Rome for the European Cup final in 1984 with the aim of beating the hosts in their own back yard. A win on penalties, the first in a European Cup final, sealed our fourth triumph in Europe’s premier competition. On Tuesday night, we were hoping to secure ourselves a place in Kiev with the aim of doing just that for a sixth time.
Jurgen Klopp had clearly rested half of his first choice team for the 2-2 draw with West Brom on Saturday and all the big guns returned tonight. Dejan Lovren, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson came into the back line in place of Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan and Alberto Moreno. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started at the expense of Georginio Wijnaldum, while Roberto Firmino took Danny Ings’ place up front.
Roma changed shape and personnel from the 3-0 win over SPAL in Serie A at the weekend. Jonathon Silva and Bruno Peres made way for Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov, while Juan Jesus replaced Maxime Gonalons as Eusebio Di Francesco went to a back three. Lorenzo Pellegrini, Stephan El Shaarawy and Patrick Schick also dropped to the bench, with Edin Dzeko, Cengiz Under and Daniele De Rossi being preferred over them.
Liverpool had been warned not to take their opponents lightly and it was one that was proving accurate. Roma played high line and pushed Florenzi and Kolarov as high up the pitch as they could to provide service to the deadly Dzeko. They were controlling the midfield but not really creating anything up top. They did have the first big chance of the game though. A Roma corner from the right was cleared as far as Kolarov. From about twenty yards out, the Serbian left wing-back unleashed piledriver towards goal which was heading straight for the gloves of Loris Karius. The German stopper lost the flight of the ball in the air though and his feeble palm managed, somehow, to push the ball onto the bar. Liverpool also suffered the loss of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain following an innocuous challenge on Daniele De Rossi. Oxlade-Chamberlain immediately grabbed his knee and looked in awful pain before being brought off – via a stretcher – for Gini Wijnaldum.
After a tight opening half hour though Roma began to fade. They started to lose control of the midfield, and couldn’t keep up with Liverpool’s pace or escape the pressure. We began to seize the game and create chances. Sadio Mane managed to get in behind the lumbering Federico Fazio before firing into the Anfield Road End when he looked certain to score. Just mere moments later, Salah cut the ball back to Mane from the right side of the box onto the penalty spot. Mane was unable to wrap his foot around it though and produced a similar, if not worse, outcome than his earlier effort. That was all forgotten on thirty five minutes though – because Liverpool would have the lead we deserved.
Mo Salah had started to get the better of Juan Jesus down the Liverpool right and now he faced him up on the corner of the area. Jesus tried to block off the pass in the channel while Kostas Manolas came over to cover the shot. Neither defended effectively though, allowing Salah to bring the ball onto his deadly left foot and give him space. Once that was allowed to happen the outcome was inevitable and he proceeded to curl an exquisite shot beyond the despairing dive of Allison Becker in the Roma goal. The roof came off Anfield as Salah showed respect to his former club by not celebrating. First blood Liverpool.
The goal seemed to completely shake Roma to the core and they began to completely fall apart. It looked as if Liverpool would score every time we attacked and, on the stroke of half time, we did. Virgil Van Dijk, from a Roma corner, played a long ball into midfield which Mo Salah flicked on beautifully to Roberto Firmino. Salah then set off on a dummy run, drawing Juan Jesus with him. Once the gap opened up, Salah sprinted past Jesus into the space. Firmino simply played a well weighted ball into the space for Salah to run onto, take one touch away from Allison to make an angle, and chip it deftly over the ‘keeper to double Liverpool’s lead. Salah stood solemnly in the centre of the penalty area once more as pandemonium ensued around him.
When the half-time whistle came there will have been no one in the ground more pleased to hear it than Eusebio Di Francesco. He side had started so promisingly but had completely collapsed midway through the first half. They were in danger of letting Liverpool run away with the tie, which, judging by Roma’s awful defensive display, was a distinct possibility. Jurgen Klopp will have been over the moon with his side. They had scored two deserved goals and had found a clear chink the Roman armour. Not only were we cruising at 2-0, we looked like we could score more whenever we wanted to.
Liverpool began the second half in tentative fashion, although it was plainly clear that this red animal could snap again at any moment. Watching this Liverpool side do this this season has been a pleasure to watch. The ability to slide in and out of gears, practically play in waves of intensity, seems to frighten the opposition beyond belief. That is exactly what we were doing here and, on fifty six minutes, we clicked into gear again. James Milner chipped a ball over the top of the tortured Juan Jesus for Mo Salah to superbly bring down. He took off towards goal before fronting up the recovering Jesus. He dropped the shoulder and shimmied past the poor Brazilian centre half before squaring it across the six yard box. Sadio Mane was on hand to tap into the Kop net and send Liverpool 3-0 up. That wasn’t the end though.
With Liverpool now in full flow and Roma seemingly in complete disarray, we were absolutely tearing through the Italians. Eusebio Di Francesco had frozen on the touchline, his players coming over to implore him to do something to change the game. He had brought on Patrick Schick to give his side an extra target up front but he had so far failed to have the desired effect. Liverpool were capitalising on the uncertainty. On sixty one minutes Salah was again away down the right, leaving Juan Jesus in his wake. He squared the ball across the box once more and this time it was Roberto Firmino who stuck it into the empty net.
Just seven minutes later we were at it again. Roma were all over the place and an unforced error from Maxime Gonalons, who had entered the field of play along with Diego Perotti. His skewed pass went straight out for a Liverpool corner. James Milner stepped up to swing the ball in from the right hand side and straight onto the unmarked head of Roberto Firmino. He leapt high above anyone else and headed the ball down into the floor, past the flailing arms of Allison, into the bottom corner of the Kop goal. Roma had been blown away the tie was beyond them now…Or so we thought.
From being in such a powerful position we started to go down through the gears, the negative aspect of that lovely little trick we love to play. The introduction of Perotti had brought Roma to life. They now had pace and an outlet down their right hand side. On eighty one minutes, Perotti marauded down the right before playing the ball inside to Radja Nainggolan. The Belgian enforced chipped a ball into the area towards Edin Dzeko, who had pulled off the back of Dejan Lovren. The ball sailed over Lovren’s head and onto the chest of Dzeko before the former Man City forward slotted at Karius’ near post. Roma had an away goal, a lifeline, and Anfield became nervous.
The Italians started to pour forward as Liverpool failed to regain control of the game. Heads had gone all over the pitch as the away side now looked the more likely to score. On eighty five minutes Perotti crossed from the right but the ball was cleared by Lovren. It came to Nainggolan on the edge of the box, who fired a shot towards goal. James Milner’s block sent the ball out for a corner – but referee Felix Brych had other ideas, instead blowing for a penalty for handball against Milner. The ground fell silent as Perotti stepped up to excellently convert high into the top corner of Karius’ net.
For the final five minutes plus four minutes of stoppage time Liverpool became an extremely shaky team. Roma continued to come forward sensing that we were nervous but they couldn’t breach our net again. The referee blew the whistle to the tune of a huge cheer of relief around Anfield. Never has a 5-2 victory seemed such a scary result to take into a second leg.
This is now the second time in a week that Liverpool have conceded two goals in the final ten minutes of a game. The signs towards the end of this match were worrying. Roma had been at sixes and sevens for seventy five minutes and we had let them back into as tie which seemed dead and buried. You have to fancy that Roma won’t play that badly again next at any point otherwise they will feel the full wrath, once again, of this Liverpool side. This Liverpool side which has just put five past them and shred them to ribbons for most of this game. Records have been broken all over the place this season by these Reds. Mo Salah has scored more goals in a European campaign than any other player in the clubs history, James Milner has contributed more assists in a single campaign than any other player in the history of the Champions League, and Liverpool are about to stretch our record of Champions League wins to six. Let’s not worry, let’s not stress, let’s just enjoy this for what is – a glorious side on the verge of something very, very special.