There were two sides facing three-goal deficits in the Champions League quarterfinals on Tuesday. One was widely considered to have at least a chance of going through–but it was the one that didn't that pulled off the unlikely miracle after all.
Roma overcame a 4-1 loss to Barcelona in the first leg, scoring three unanswered at the raucous Stadio Olimpico to oust Lionel Messi & Co. and secure an improbable place in the semifinals.
Liverpool, meanwhile, after a difficult first half, finished off the job against Manchester City with a 2-1 win, advancing 5-1 on aggregate.
The story of the day, though, was Roma. An early strike from Edin Dzeko and a Daniele De Rossi penalty put Roma one goal from an away-goals victory, and the winner came from Kostas Manolas with eight minutes remaining. What was once an academic Barcelona edge turned into a 4-4 aggregate draw, with Dzeko's first-leg away goal proving to be decisive.
At the Etihad, City had put Liverpool under pressure, taking a second-minute lead through Gabriel Jesus, hitting the post and having a goal wrongly ruled out before halftime. Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands for his protests at that decision, and City never developed the same momentum after the break. Goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino settled the tie, sending Liverpool on to the final four, where it's joined, improbably, by Roma.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Roma stuns vulnerable Barcelona
Only two sides in the Champions League era (plus nine others in the European Cup) had ever overturned a first-leg deficit of three goals or more. Barcelona was one of them, overcoming a 4-0 defeat to beat PSG last season, but this was more akin to Deportivo La Coruna’s 5-4 aggregate win over AC Milan in 2004. Like Depor, Roma had an away goal from the first leg. And like Depor, nobody gave them a chance.
But this is not the Barcelona of 2009 or 2011, or even of 2015. It may still be unbeaten in La Liga, but it was fortunate to beat Chelsea as comfortably as 4-1 on aggregate, and 4-1 against Roma in the first leg similarly seemed a greater margin than the performance deserved. This Barcelona has a good defensive record domestically–just 16 goals conceded in 31 league games–but didn’t impress against Chelsea and was undone by a simple ball over the top after six minutes, with Dzeko running on to score.
Suddenly, it looked vulnerable. Sergio Busquets, sapped by age, no longer offers the same control in front of the back four. The fullbacks no longer inspire the same terror. Andres Iniesta, it turns out, is fallible. Thirteen minutes into the second half, Roma had a second, with De Rossi converting from the spot after Gerard Pique had fouled Dzeko. Suddenly Roma was one goal from going through on away goals against a Barcelona side that had lost any sense of control.
Manolas had scored a desperately unfortunate own goal in the first leg, his clearance hitting the post, bouncing back onto him, and then cannoning back off him into the net. Here, he had glorious redemption, darting across the near post and glancing in a deft header off Cengiz Under's corner kick.
Barcelona, at last, was prodded into urgency. Pique added his height as an auxiliary center forward, but a string of long balls seemed to play into Roma hands and Eusebio Di Francesco’s side held on with surprising ease.
Roma is on to the semifinals, while any and all thoughts of a potential Clasico semifinal or final went up in smoke.
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Man City's comeback fizzles out
Guardiola had been a Camp Nou ball boy when Barcelona came back from 3-0 down against IFK Gothenburg in the European Cup semifinal in 1986 to win on penalties, and for a time it had seemed he might inspire a similar result as coach. City had to attack and set up with an astonishingly attacking lineup. Guardiola used a back three for the first time since the dead-rubber group game against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Kyle Walker deployed on the right of the three with a license to push on. Fernandinho was a lone holding midfielder, with Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva as inside forwards and Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane as wingbacks, leaving Raheem Sterling to play just off Gabriel Jesus.
Quite apart from anything else, that meant Sterling was able to initiate the press very high up, and it was him closing down on Virgil van Dijk that led to the opening goal after 117 seconds. The Dutch defender seemed to think he was fouled and half-stopped as he cleared straight to Bernardo Silva, the ball ricocheting inside to Fernandinho, whose pass laid in Sterling to square for Gabriel Jesus to knock in.
With the ball boys notably quick to get the ball back into play, the plan was clearly to keep the pressure on Liverpool, to suffocate them, to induce panic and, to an extent, it worked. Liverpool’s use of the ball was poor and it could easily have fallen a further goal behind before halftime. Luck was with Jurgen Klopp’s side as a Bernardo Silva shot flicked off Dejan Lovren and hit the post when it had probably been curling in, and then Leroy Sane had a goal wrongly ruled out just before halftime.
City never developed the same momentum in the second half, exhausted, perhaps, by its first-half efforts, and Salah’s calm finish 11 minutes into the second half leveled the score, which, with the away goals rule, effectively ended the tie. Roberto Firmino capitalized on a Nicolas Otamendi error to make absolutely certain with 13 minutes remaining, giving Liverpool a third win over Man City in a three-month span across the Premier League and Champions League.
Referee takes share of spotlight at Man City
Criticizing referees is one of the more tedious tactics of conspiracy theorists, but it’s fair to say the Spanish official Antonio Mateu Lahoz did not have a good game. His biggest error came with the disallowing of Sane's apparent goal. Although the German winger was beyond goalkeeper Loris Karius as the ball bounced back into the goal area and would normally have been in an offside position, the ball had ricocheted to him off James Milner, therefore putting him onside. Mystifyingly, Lahoz added no additional time in the first half, despite booking five players.
Before Lahoz had been appointed to the game, Guardiola had made reference last week to his performance in the last-16 tie last season, when he booked Sergio Aguero for diving after he had seemingly been taken out by the Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic, who should probably have been sent off.
Guardiola dragged away players who were berating Lahoz as they left the field at halftime, but his fury with the official was clear, as he repeatedly pointed at his eye and then the penalty area where the incident had taken place. He was banished to the stands in the second half, the first time he has been sent from the touchline in his City career. There's no telling how the result may have been altered had Sane's goal been allowed to stand.