A 5-2 victory in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final is always just cause for celebration.
Except in this case, Virgil Van Dijk wasn’t impressed at all by his side’s defending in the last 15 minutes. A barnstorming dash to the final till that point had been interrupted by Roma sounding the warning bugle for the second leg in Italy eight days later, as Liverpool conceded two late goals to breathe some life into the tie.
Van Dijk exclaimed that he was “frustrated” at the end of the game as Liverpool ever so slightly left the door ajar. Eusebio Di Francisco’s team might use that entry point to bring the whole house down, like they did against Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
Exciting second leg set-up
The difference this time will be that it will be a brave Jurgen Klopp team that Roma will look to stifle and not a cowardly Erneste Valverde side which hoped to hold onto it’s lead through passivity.
Remarkably, both teams had similar advantages and deficits heading into their respective quarter-finals. Liverpool, unlike Barcelona, saw the job out, scoring once in each quarter to knock Manchester City out.
Odds and common sense dictate that Roma should not come back from a three-goal deficit twice, especially in the quarters and semis of the Champions League. We’ve seen stranger things in football, mind you, and the second leg in Rome should make for an enthralling spectacle. Liverpool, no mugs themselves, will play the only way that Klopp wants to play – try and nick an early away goal to put the tie beyond the Italian side’s reach.
Liverpool exploit Roman high-line
The two teams dominated for equal spells of the match, with Roma in control of the first 25 and the last 20, while Liverpool bought the sledge hammer down in the middle. Francesco will rue his side’s soft underbelly in conceding five goals in a 45 minute spell.
Aleksander Kolarov came the closest to opening the scoring with Loris Karius flapping at his long-ranger, only to tip it over the bar but then Liverpool managed to do what Roma couldn’t, score while they were ahead.
That Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain started a game of this magnitude underlines his growing influence in Klopp’s machinery but his injury forced the German to re-think Pool’s approach and Gini Wijnaldum came on and was pushed further forward, transforming the Reds from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-4.
What this did was elongate the play at the very top, making it very crowded for Roma to get the ball out and stretching the game on the sides to allow the likes of Sadio Mane and Mo’ Salah to hug the touchline while Roberto Firmino and Wijnaldum to work the channels.
Roma’s own high-line played into the home side’s hands as Firmino kept getting beyond Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio, allowing the others to latch onto the Brazilian’s pass. Mane was the first to spur two good opportunities, but then it was Salah who created a goal out of nothing as his top-corner curler didn’t give Alisson a prayer. It was important to capitalise on a good spell of football and Salah’s Robben-esque finish did just that.
Lovren madness keeps Roma in the tie
Liverpool’s long chipped balls played down the sides made it tough for the Roman midfield to intercept, as Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman and Daniel de Rossi were bypassed completely.
Salah made it two as Firmino timed his run and pass to perfection with the Egyptian chipping Alisson to finish exquisitely. The second half saw more of the same with Salah, Wijnaldum, Firmino and Mane taking turns to run beyond the Roman back-line with Salah particularly dominant against Kolarov, who simply did not have the pace to stay with Liverpool’s attackers.
Eventually, Liverpool would make it five, the fifth time this season that they have scored as many in a match but with Lovren in defence, calamity ensued. Diego Perotti’s substitution gave Roma some cushion out wide and with Edin Dzeko operating more centrally, Liverpool’s Croatian centre-back missed a routine long ball from Nainggolan with Dzeko putting it away.
Next, Milner would handle the ball in his own area as Perotti comfortably put it away to give Roma a two-goal lifeline. Roma ended the game the stronger team and could have got more, as second half substitute Patrick Schick came close.
Roma get first half wrong
Di Francesco must share part of the blame for Roma’s abject collapse as he started with a three-man defence. He used it in the second leg against Barcelona, throwing the Catalans off the usual 4-3-3 that the Giallorossi use week in, week out.
The 48-year-old intended to take the game to Liverpool in the first half which Roma did, but with Dzeko operating as a lone target man, their attacks came to nought. With Schick introduced in the second half and Perotti pushed out wide, Roma looked more comfortable giving Dzeko more license to take a more direct approach.
Kolarov was Roma’s weak link on the night and Di Francesco must take a call on whether to play the 32-year-old full-back against Liverpool’s pacy attack in Rome. An early goal would certainly spice things up, but this tie should still be Liverpool’s to lose.
Seldom have ’Pool failed to score in the Jurgen Klopp-era and expect them to repeat it at the Stadio Olimpico. Roma have shown that it is possible to recover, but to do it against a timid Barcelona and a rampaging Liverpool are two different kettles of fish.