On April 24th 2018, at Anfield, Liverpool played AS Roma in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
It’s been a long and winding road, full of ups and downs, occasional climbs to a higher level only for a drop back down to follow. It’s been ten years since we last played at this stage of this competition. A decade since we were beaten by Chelsea only for them to lose to Manchester United in the final.
Our time maybe hasn’t fully come yet, but it’s bloody damn near.
For this huge clash, Jurgen Klopp couldn’t count on Joel Matip, Nathaniel Clyne, Emre Can and Adam Lallana. This was the starting XI he picked:
Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco refused to reveal too much about his line-up beforehand. One thing he did mention was that he had to make a choice between Cengiz Under and Patrick Schick – only one of them would start this game. In the end, it was Cengiz:
The First Half
As such a huge occasion demands, both teams displayed strong desire to get ahead right from the start, though it took the players a while to get a proper feeling for the ball. Within the first ten minutes, Kevin Strootman, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Radja Nainggolan all took relatively tame shots that were either comfortably saved or went comfortably wide. It was a dynamic start, nevertheless.
After that it got more exciting by the minute. The visitors were the first team to lift their level of play higher, and they conducted a good attack in the 13th minute when Edin Džeko held the ball up well on the edge of the box and enabled his teammates to get closer. The move ended disappointingly for them with Kolarov directing a cross straight into the arms of Loris Karius.
Two minutes later they attacked again, and the ball was sent to Kolarov once more. Oxlade-Chamberlain tackled the former Manchester City left-back and got the ball, but he stayed down clutching his knee, obviously in great pain. It was immediately clear that he would not be able to continue. The Reds played a minute with 10 men during which Roma had another good attack, but Dejan Lovren cleared the danger ahead of Cengiz. Then Georginio Wijnaldum came on.
Immediately after that, Kolarov blasted one from range and it slipped off the palms of Karius onto the crossbar and away. A very lucky moment, and one that will probably get the critics of the German goalkeeper out in full force.
It’s fair to say that Roma looked the better team up to that point, but when the 20-minute mark had past, the Reds started hitting back, and hitting strong.
They consolidated the midfield somewhere at that point of the game, and it provided a good foundation for what was about to follow. You could almost feel the click when Wijnaldum suddenly grew into the game, providing his usual skill, vision and steel in the middle of the park. Then Liverpool started swinging.
The Romans started showing signs of nerves straight away. In the 26th minute, Juan Jesus was booked for a foul on Mane. Two minutes later, the Senegalese had two huge chances one after the other.
Firmino chipped the ball over Manolas and Mane was off. He outpaced Fazio and charged into the box. Alisson Becker came out and got down, and Mane drove his shot over him, but also over the bar. Hardly a minute passed when Firmino dribbled past Jesus and employed Mane again who once more shot over the bar from a good position. This time it went sky-high.
Then Salah took the ball off Jesus, played a one-two with Firmino and took a trademark shot to the far post, but Alisson produced a fine save.
Then as Roma moved a bit forward, Mane wasted another chance by messing up a counterattack. It just didn’t look like it was going to be his evening at that point. The feeling intensified in the 34th minute when he got at the end of a cross from Andy Robertson and placed the ball in the net, only to be rightly ruled offside.
But then, with 36 minutes on the clock, Henderson pressed Strootman in the middle and poked the ball away from him. The joint effort of Wijnaldum and Mane kept possession for Liverpool and Mane passed to Firmino who was coming towards the box. Firmino laid it off for Salah and continued his run, but the Egyptian blasted the ball into the very far-top corner, off the bar and in.
That was the moment when Roma really seemed to have fallen apart. Just two minutes later, Wijnaldum brilliantly won a corner off Manolas, Salah took it and Lovren slammed a header onto the crossbar.
A minute later Trent Alexander-Arnold picked up a yellow card for a late tackle on Strootman.
Liverpool were completely dominating the game in that period. Mane ruined another counterattack and Wijnaldum had a shot off a long Robertson pass saved by Alisson, before Salah finally took it upon himself to make it two.
The last minute of the half was running when Virgil van Dijk cleared a cross from Kolarov. Salah won the ball and gave it to Firmino who dribbled past an opponent before releasing Salah again. Alisson was again quick off his line, but Salah did rather better than Mane in a similar situation. He simply chipped the ball over the Roma ‘keeper and sent it trickling into the back of the net.
The Second Half
The choice Di Fancesco had made at the start now seemed wrong to him, and Cengiz remained in the dressing room after the break, making way for Patrik Schick.
A minute after the game had restarted, Strootman handled the ball some 25 yards from his goal and gave a good free-kick opportunity to Alexander-Arnold, but the youngster hit the wall.
However, Liverpool quickly won through the battle in the middle of the park that Roma were trying to start, and the fabulous front three started causing trouble for the visitors’ defence. Not that Roma didn’t have an occasional attempt at attacking too, but they never looked like producing anything. The only thing that came of their attacks was Kolarov getting caught out a fair few times and it was extremely costly.
Alexander-Arnold took advantage of one such moment in the 56th minute and sent Salah “running down the wing” with a great parallel. Salah was in an inexplicably large pocket of space and he ran straight at Jesus. Picking the perfect moment, he squared it for Mane who this time didn’t miss.
A mistake by Fazio – the ball given straight to Liverpool players – a minute later was a good indicator of the state Roma were in at that point. On the other hand, the Reds were brimming with confidence, perfectly mirrored by a 35-yard attempt from Alexander-Arnold that went wide of the mark.
Right on the hour mark, Mane went around Fazio on the left flank as this time Florenzi was caught out. He involved Firmino who lost his balance in a tussle with his marker, and Robertson charged at the ball and took a shot that was blocked.
Less than 60 seconds passed, and Trent sent another parallel for Salah and the same situation occured as when Liverpool scored their third, only this time it was Firmino who got on the end of the Salah pass.
The Italian team looked completely broken now. Di Francesco felt he had to act, and in the 67th minute he took out De Rossi and Jesus, and brought in Maxim Gonalons and Diego Perotti.
Gonalons’ first contribution to the game was a needlessly conceded corner, from which Milner found Firmino who headed in skillfully.
But the introduction of Perotti had a different effect.
Their formation was now 4-4-2 with Schick supporting Džeko in attack while Perotti and Gonalons flanked Strootman and Nainggolan in the middle. Kolarov and Florenzi dropped a little deeper to close down the flanks.
With 71 minutes gone, Lovren made a mistake as his clearance hit Schick and almost went in. With the Croatian centre-back heavily reliant on confidence, this moment had a most undesirable effect on him. Two minutes later, Karius produced an excellent save to deny Schick’s header after Kolarov and Perotti did some good work on the left flank.
After a late Milner tackle on Strootman one minute later, Lovren was booked but the reason for that remains unknown to me. Feel free to enlighten me on the matter in the comment section if you saw anything I didn’t.
With a five-goal advantage, Klopp obviously felt Salah could do with a bit of rest and in the 75th minute he replaced the PFA Player of the Year with Danny Ings. Ings slotted straight into Salah’s position on the wing.
But with Liverpool’s sharpest weapon out of the game, Roma found new courage and went forward. A great chip from Džeko for Perotti was brilliantly stopped by Alexander-Arnold, although Perotti was ruled offside.
But with nine minutes remaining, Lovren was at it again. Nainggolan aimed a long pass towards Džeko, and Liverpool’s defender completely misjudged its flight and missed his header. The pass found its target and Džeko was ruthless from close range.
Only one minute later, Liverpool wasted a huge chance to make it six. A great cross by Robertson found Wijnaldum free around the penalty spot but the Dutchman mishit the ball.
The game was completely alive again, unlikely though it had seemed just a few minutes earlier. Another poor defensive play, this time a lack of communication between Lovren and Trent, allowed Džeko to shoot once more, but this time the Bosnian wasn’t so effective and it was easy work for Karius.
But Roma stuck to their task and were rewarded with a bit of luck in the 85th minute. Nainggolan took a shot from just outside the box and hit Milner in the arm. Referee Felix Brych pointed to the spot.
Whether it was the right call or not, the fact remains that Milner’s arm wasn’t pressed against his body and penalties have been given against Liverpool this season for less than that.
Be that as it may, substitute Perotti took responsibility and expertly put it in the top corner, out of Karius’ reach.
It was Liverpool’s turn to look completely shaken, but from that moment on the Reds somehow held on. Henderson was booked for protest over the penalty, and three minutes later Fazio joined him in the book for protesting a foul given to Liverpool too strongly.
In the middle of the four-minute injury time, Firmino left the pitch to make way for Ragnar Klavan. And that was it for the first leg.
Liverpool certainly taught Roma a lesson in football and confirmed once more they can be as deadly as any team in Europe, but again that mental frailty at the back marred the overall impression somewhat. Of course, the injury of Oxlade-Chamberlain is also something that will leave us anxious.
The tie was all but won at one point but Liverpool have allowed Roma to hope again, given the way they got past the quarterfinals. Still, it’s a long climb back for them and it is to be hoped that Klopp and his men will be smart enough to avoid the fate of Barcelona in the second leg next Wednesday.
Meanwhile, it’s Stoke on Saturday and it will be interesting to see the line-up the manager will field for that game.
We walk on.