In the end there was a comeback completed in Rome – but the only one that mattered was Liverpool’s return to club football’s greatest stage. The most successful English side in the history of the competition has reached their eighth Champions League final. There they will meet Real Madrid, the most successful side in the history of the competition full stop.
It is a showdown so rich in history, and really a fixture for the ages, even if it did not quite involve a performance for the ages for Liverpool to finish the job and get to Kiev.
That kind of display had admittedly come in the frenetic first leg, although here Jurgen Klopp’s side did at times show exactly why it is they are in the final – and why their very distinctive and very fast style of attacking may give Real Madrid more problems than they’ve had to deal with than at any point in their half-decade domination of this competition.
It was just that this 4-2 defeat to a highly-flawed Roma – to make it 7-6 on aggregate – highlighted as many of Liverpool’s own concerning flaws as their mesmeric strengths.
Some of that was of course down to the comfort of the first-leg lead, and the extreme distinctiveness of the situation, not to mention the natural nerves that come into play when you’re this close to something this special. The late rally also never felt as close as some of Liverpool’s players seemed determined to make it. That was summed up by the fact the final whistle was blown straight after Radja Nainggolan had scored the penalty to bring his side within one goal of extra-time.
Roma did lay siege in the final 15 minutes of the game, but the truth was the foundations had already been more than laid for the path to Kyiv – and you didn’t even have to go as far as back as the first leg.
Even here, the Serie A side made it so easy for Liverpool to become the first team to score 46 goals in a single European campaign. All of the impressive – and often deafening – sound that the Stadio Olimpico made came to nothing other than those nerves, and they were ultimately blown away along with that Roma back four that can only really be called a “defence” in name.
It wasn’t even that they had no answer to Liverpool’s pace in that fateful first half to go with the first leg. It remained as if manager Eusebio Di Francesco hadn’t yet realised it was a question he needed to figure out.
That in turn raised questions about Roma’s campaign.
How exactly was it that they had gone an entire Champions League season before this without conceding at home? How exactly was it that Barcelona – and Leo Messi! – could go an entire match without scoring against them?
None of these questions should be confused as doubt about Liverpool’s excellence. That is now beyond question, and one reason this second leg was so forgiving a game was because of how resoundingly brilliant they’d been in the first.
It’s just that, when the opposition have a forward line as forceful and free-scoring as this, you probably shouldn’t play the ball directly into their path to set up the most inviting of counter-attacks. That, however, was precisely what Nainggolan did on eight minutes. Roberto Firmino collected and careered forward, before releasing Sadio Mane for an easy finish. It didn’t even have to be a particularly good finish, such was the poor quality of Allison Becker’s early dive.
That was this second leg summed up. Liverpool didn’t need to be as good as they can be.
That was also the early goal that Di Francesco had talked about, it just happened to be at the wrong end.
And, once Mane’s strike hit the net, it meant any Roma comeback really wasn’t ever happening. It really rendered everything that happened after that irrelevant, little more than fairly entertaining extra detail played to the background of extra-loud Ultra noise.
Sure, there was something akin to a Roma siege – that involved one or two justified penalty calls – but there was never quite much sense of danger to it, and that was down to more than the chasmic gap.
It was also down to more than Liverpool possessing the insurance of an away-goal. It was that they also possessed the knowledge that Roma were going to be as porous as in the first leg.
That was proved with the ludicrously easy nature of the second goal – to make it 2-1 – as Gini Wijnaldum was allowed to just nod the ball home from mere yards.
If all of that raised those questions about Roma and how it was they had even got this far, there own goals should raise a few more fears for Liverpool for when they get to the final and a side as experienced and accomplished as Real Madrid.
What might Cristiano Ronaldo do given some of the space Stephan El Shaarawy and the industrious Edin Dzeko were offered here?
Again, that might have been down to the extremities of the situation and Liverpool did show their defensive mettle against Manchester City… but, even with Virgil van Dijk, some problems remain in that backline.
Roma’s first goal was as comical as Liverpool’s second, albeit down to one chaotic moment rather than a combination of them as Dejan Lovren’s clearance cannoned back into the net off James Milner’s head. Dzeko was given ludicrous space for the second.
There were then the nerves that Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed to so visibly suffer, that only invited more and more pressure – and two more goals. Nainggolan struck from distance before striking from the spot, but even then the truth was that the damage was done. And, whatever about what else happened in this game, the only truth that matters is that Liverpool are back in a European Cup final.
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