The Reds are strong favourites to reach the Champions League final – but Jurgen Klopp’s side can take nothing for granted
It shouldn’t be an issue in all honesty, but it is. The tie shouldn’t be alive, but it is. The thought shouldn’t enter Liverpool heads, but it will.
What if? What if?
The Reds head to Rome in an envious position. Avoid defeat by three goals or more and they are in the Champions League final, head-to-head in Kiev with Bayern Munich or, more likely, Real Madrid.
Is there a supporter who wouldn’t have taken that scenario back in August? Unlikely. Yet as the dust settled on Liverpool’s 5-2 win at Anfield in their semi-final first leg last week, there it was; the fear, the worry.
Roma’s two late goals on Merseyside, gifted to them by a defensive error and a generous referee, give the Italians a glimmer where there should have been none. Liverpool had a foot-and-nine-tenths in the final at 81 minutes last Tuesday, now it’s just a foot, maybe more. A very good situation, as opposed to a perfect one.
History is in the Reds’ favour. Only three teams have turned around a three-goal deficit in a Champions League knock-out tie, after all.
The trouble is, one of those sides is Roma. And they did it last month.
The Giallarossi’s quarter-final comeback against Barcelona is the reason a good number of Liverpool fans are approaching Wednesday night’s game with scepticism. If Eusebio Di Francesco’s side can upset the odds against Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and co, then nobody should be able to relax.
Roma lost 4-1 at Camp Nou in the first leg of their quarter-final but, amid incredible scenes at the Stadio Olimpico, won 3-0 in the second leg – a result which stunned Europe. When Jurgen Klopp, still celebrating his own side’s win at Manchester City on the same night, was told of the news, he thought it was a wind-up.
It wasn’t, though many Roma fans had to pinch themselves to believe it. Their side performed heroically in the face of adversity, and slayed the giants, the unbeaten La Liga champions. It was, as one Spanish paper put it, “a historic humiliation” for Barca. Liverpool, you have been warned.
Roma’s home form in the Champions League is excellent. In fact, Di Francesco’s men are yet to concede at the Stadio Olimpico in Europe this season, and they’ve faced Chelsea, Atletico Madrid and Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as Barcelona.
In the quarter-final, they were rewarded for an aggressive, high-energy pressing game, to which Barcelona’s superstars had no answer. Their team selection was daring – three at the back and two main strikers – and their approach paid dividends. Edin Dzeko scored early, and Roma simply overpowered their opponents thereafter.
Whether a similar approach will work against Liverpool, however, is debatable. Roma tried to be bold at Anfield last week, and used their three-man defence again – much to the surprise of many, including Klopp.
But where Barcelona’s approach relies on possession, build-up and, to a large extent, the genius of Messi, Liverpool’s pace makes opening the game up a very dangerous tactic indeed. Bravery is one thing, foolishness another.
Roma actually started the game well on Merseyside, their press forcing the Reds to look longer than they would ideally like to and their industry providing joy through their wing-backs, Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov. But once Liverpool settled and figured the game out, the gaps were clear to see. Juan Jesus, the left-sided centre back, was left brutally exposed against Mohamed Salah, while Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi had the legs run off them by James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum. Liverpool scored five, but could have had twice as many. It is their sloppiness, rather than anything Roma did, which means the tie is not dead and buried.
With Roma needing to score at least three times on Wednesday, the expectation is that they will come out all guns blazing, seeking a repeat of their quarter-final. With Di Francesco’s side enjoying the backing of a pumped-up home support, Klopp knows his team will need to be ‘on it’ from the word go.
They certainly weren’t at the Etihad in their own quarter-final second leg. Again, they arrived into that game protecting a three-goal lead, but were behind inside two minutes as a fired-up Manchester City started like a train. On another night, and with different officials, Liverpool’s advantage could have been wiped out by half time – though the Reds’ resilience and their second-half performance on the night was hugely impressive.
Klopp is not a manager known for taking backwards steps, even when the stakes are high. Remember the semi-final of 2013 between his Borussia Dortmund side and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid? Dortmund won 4-1 in Germany in the first leg, and then chose to attack over in Spain. They should have scored at least twice to kill the tie during a madcap first half, but ended up clinging on for dear life as Madrid scored twice late on. You get drama with a Klopp side, whatever the occasion.
Liverpool fans will hope Wednesday is an exception to the rule. There would be no complaints from the travelling Kop shouldthe game turn into the most boring of European stalemates, a throwback to the Gerard Houllier or Rafa Benitez era. Their side’s job is clear; to stay compact, to remain solid, to keep the crowd as quiet as possible and, they hope, to let Salah and co do their business when the chance presents itself – which it surely will, given the evidence of the first leg.
Then, and only then, can thoughts turn to Kiev.