Rome wasn’t built in a day but it was very nearly destroyed in one night.
Radja Nainggolan, Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti may well have eaten into Liverpool’s five-goal advantage – as the Reds switched off in the last 10 minutes of their semi-final first leg at Anfield – but Roma’s hopes are all but extinguished after a chastening 5-2 loss.
There won’t be many supporters out there feeling that there is another miraculous comeback in this squad like they experienced against Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
The difference is that back then they had a point to prove. Barca’s 4-1 win in the first leg at Camp Nou was as harsh as they come. Roma scored two own goals and patently did not deserve to be three behind on aggregate.
By the time they got back to the Stadio Olimpico they had a grievance; a burning injustice to correct.
This one is different. Roma can count themselves very lucky to be only three goals behind with the added bonus of two away goals. They got more than they deserved after one of the most inept performances at the semi-final stage in the competition’s history.
“I think we deserved to score those two goals,” said their coach Eusebio Di Francesco. “The team proved to have soul but I didn’t like that we gave up during the second half.”
Roma join Swansea and Watford in conceding five goals at Anfield this season – only Spartak Moscow conceded more – and – on this evidence – they belong in that company.
There will be plenty out there scratching their heads and wondering just how this team managed to do what they needed to do and beat Barcelona by three clear goals.
That was a performance of a lifetime and this their worst collective outing of the season. The truth is that this Roma are not as good as the result against Barca would suggest, nor are they truly as bad as this one.
But how Di Francesco will wish he could play this match again. He would probably do everything differently.
“We controlled the first 20-25 minutes but then we started to lose too many duels,” he said.
“Football is not a game about systems, it is about winning those individual duels. It could have been more than five at one stage.”
It’s unfair to blame everything on the Roma coach but the buck stops with him. It was his tactical system that led to his team being fed to the lions, even if some poor individual displays will disappoint him.
How could he leave his three-man defence man-for-man against a front three who have now scored 88 goals between them this season?
How could he put Juan Jesus up against Mohamed Salah and expect anything other than total annihilation?
The manner in which Roma conceded goals and chances was unfathomably bad. Liverpool had 20 shots and put 11 of them on target. They rained down 13 shots in the first half alone. Alisson Becker was exposed to such an extent that one of the world’s best goalkeepers looked poor.
Time after time, Liverpool fed balls over that poor excuse of a Roma midfield and into the channels for Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to exploit.
They ran riot to such an extent that Salah became the first man to score two goals and assist two goals in a Champions League semi-final match. Seven minutes after he did it, Firmino did the same.
“What I didn’t expect was to concede so many goals one after the other in second half,” Di Francesco reasoned.
“When you lose so many midfield duels, it’s hard to change the trend of the game.
“We gave away too many balls, we worked on it and knew they were lethal on the break in that area. I changed things as we lost shape, too much space and needed vitality and another striker to try to play and hold up the ball more.”
It was as if Roma had never seen Liverpool play this season. Everything they did – after that evenly contested first 20 minutes or so – played directly into the hands of the home side’s attack.
Their defenders are slow to a man – Kostas Manolas, Federico Fazio and the benighted Jesus – but were exposed time and again. Kevin Strootman and Daniele De Rossi aren’t much quicker and chugged pointlessly after midfield runners like James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum breaking into the box.
There was such confusion in the Roma ranks that Di Francesco claimed after that he tried to change the system before Liverpool scored their fifth but his players misinterpreted the instruction. He was seen bickering with Strootman and Nainggolan on the sidelines which added to the sense of farce.
“There was a misunderstanding with the substitution,” he said. “I asked them to play 4-3-3 and they played 4-2-3-1, then they scored the fifth goal, proving details make the difference.”
It was a night on which all their strengths were nullified and all their weaknesses exposed. It was such an embarrassment that Roma can count themselves very lucky not to be regarded as the worst team ever to reach this stage of the competition.
Yet they have their lifeline. Those two late goals will give them some belief that a repeat of the Barca game is possible. They do have a chance to put things right but they scarcely deserve it.
“We don’t need miracles,” said Di Francesco. “We just need to believe like against Barcelona and our fans will be there supporting us.
“This is the first Champions League semi-final for Roma in three decades, we’re not used to it. But let me remind you: the tie is not over. Whoever does not believe in the comeback can stay at home.
“I feel responsible, I am the most responsible here, but we are still playing in a semi-final.”