Mohamed Salah struck twice against his former club as Liverpool took a huge step towards the Champions League final with a 5-2 win over Roma in the first leg of the semifinals at Anfield, but the end result was not as one-sided as it should have been.
The Egyptian took his tally in all competitions for the season to 43 with two brilliant first-half goals, and then set up goals for Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino to become the first player to register two goals and two assists in a Champions League semifinal.
Firmino headed a fifth from a 69th-minute corner to become the second, but just as the game seemed to be drifting to a conclusion, Edin Dzeko snatched an away goal.
A Diego Perotti penalty then gave Roma real hope. Having overturned a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona in the last round, a 5-2 deficit means a 3-0 win would be good enough again–and a 4-1 win would do the trick as well, leaving the tie unsettled as it heads to Rome.
Here are three thoughts on another high-scoring night at Anfield:
Roma's bold approach backfires
Only twice before this season had Eusebio Di Francesco gone for a back three: in the league game away at Lazio and in the second leg of the quarterfinal against Barcelona. His use of it here was something of a surprise when it had seemed a specific tactic to combat Barcelona’s slightly pedestrian 4-4-2. The danger against Liverpool’s 4-3-3 was twofold: that Daniele De Rossi at the back of midfield would be swamped by the Liverpool press, and that the spaces behind the two fullbacks would be a vulnerability ripe for exploitation by the pace of Mane and Salah.
As Roma pressed high, an unexpectedly bold and ultimately flawed approach, what transpired was a game of chicken, with Liverpool allowing the Roma wingbacks, Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov, to push on, gambling on being able to break 3-on-3. But Liverpool seemed unsettled by Roma’s aggression and struggled for rhythm early on, a problem exacerbated when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was forced off early on with a knee injury. As Loris Karius fumbled an Aleksandar Kolarov drive against the bar, it even seemed that Roma might cause an upset. But as the first half wore on, those transitions did begin to develop and Roma disintegrated.
Liverpool surges behind Salah
Liverpool is a side that plays in pulses, suddenly upping the tempo and ripping into opponents. At its peak, there are few sights like it. Perhaps the intention was always to begin slightly cautiously, or perhaps the lack of an early charge was a result of Roma’s press, but once Liverpool got going, Di Francesco’s side had no answer. A game that had seemed tight, that Roma was perhaps even having the better of, suddenly tipped Liverpool’s way.
The endless string of chances was faintly ridiculous, and if Mane had shown a little more composure in front if goal, the tie might have been settled by halftime. Then again, were it not for the finishing brilliance of Salah, signed from Roma for $48 million last summer, Liverpool might have ended up without a lead at all.
Mane, set clean through, blasted over in the 28th minute and Liverpool had begun its onslaught. Mane then fired a Firmino cross over, and then Alisson was forced into a diving save to deny Salah, followed by Mane having an effort ruled out for offside. Seven minutes after that first Mane chance, Roma, understandably reeling, allowed Salah a couple of yards inside the box, allowing him to cut into his left foot. His finish was deliciously precise, just kissing the bar in its way into the top corner, though he neglected to celebrate the vital goal against his former side.
But the surge continued. Dejan Lovren headed against the bar form a corner, Mane failed to control a chance in the box, Georginio Wijnaldum had a shot beaten away by Alisson and Firmino had a shot deflected wide. Then, with Roma clinging on desperately for the halftime break, Salah, again, ran onto a Firmino through ball and gently lifted the ball over Alisson for his second of the night and a backbreaker going into the locker room.
Roma manages to have hope
The tie should have been over, as Liverpool increased its lead to 5-0, but two soft goals conceded in the final 10 minutes breathed new life into the series.
Halftime should have been an opportunity for Roma to regroup, to accept that there is a good reason why Premier League sides do not play with a high line against Liverpool. But the only change Di Francesco made was to bring on Patrick Schick for Cengiz Under and switch from 3-4-2-1 to 3-5-2. That, though, did nothing to solve the basic problem of a back three playing high against a much quicker front three. Poor Juan Jesus and Federico Fazio had nowhere to turn, vulnerable to the simplest ball over the top.
Perhaps Salah was offside as he laid in Mane for the third, but then Mane hadn’t looked offside a couple of minutes earlier when he had been called back chasing another through pass. The fourth goal came from the same source–a long ball flicked on with his heel by Trent Alexander-Arnold for Salah, who jinked by Jesus and crossed for Firmino to tap in his 50th Liverpool goal.
By then Roma seemed dazed, player after player approaching Di Francesco seeking advice. But the issue by then was psychological as much as tactical, nobody picking up Firmino as he headed in a right-wing corner from James Milner to make it 5-0.
That should surely have cemented Liverpool's place in the final, but Dzeko gave Roma hope, just as he did in the first leg against Barcelona. He fired in after Lovren misjudged the flight of a Radja Nainggolan cross. Liverpool, suddenly, was the team panicking and as the game began to resemble the end of the 4-3 win over Manchester City in the league when Liverpool, having gone 4-1 up, was left to hang on, Perotti made it 5-2 from the spot after Nainggolan’s drive had struck Milner’s arm. Roma is in an unenviable spot, but at least it's one it has confronted before.