Liverpool will face Real Madrid in the 2017-18 Champions League final after a 4-2 defeat away to Roma confirmed a 7-6 aggregate victory in their entertaining semifinal.
Jurgen Klopp’s side was never entirely convincing, despite twice taking the lead, first through Sadio Mane and then Georginio Wijnaldum, but Roma never got within three goals on aggregate until it was entirely too late. The advantage Roma had of scoring two away goals in the first leg was wiped out with 25 minutes gone in the second.
An own-goal from James Milner and an eighth Champions League goal of the season from Edin Dzeko kept Roma in the tie, but the hosts only moved to within two goals with Radja Nainggolan’s 86th-minute drive. A powerful penalty shot from Nainggolan in the final minute of injury time made it look far closer than the series really had been, and Liverpool is back on the final stage for a rematch of the 1981 title clash, which was won by the Reds in Paris.
Here are three thoughts on their semifinal second leg triumph:
Rocky rearguard undoes Roma again
Roma had been undone again and again at Anfield by simple balls over the top and understandably sat much deeper here, trying to restrict the space in behind the defensive line. But the problem with doing that is that it makes the team as a whole far less compact, increasing the area in which the midfield has to operate, particularly when the focus, as it had to be, is on the attack. Roma threatened early on, but as soon as Nainggolan gave away possession in the ninth minute, the problem was clear. Roberto Firmino had space to run at an exposed back line, and it was then a simple task of timing his throughball for Mane, who finished with rather more confidence than he had shown at Anfield.
That was the first goal Roma had conceded at home in this season’s Champions League which, frankly, seemed barely credible. This was not a side that inspired much confidence. The sloppy marking that led to Virgil van Dijk nodding in the fifth goal from a corner at Anfield could be explained by the state of the game and the daze into which Roma had sunk by that stage. Here, it was harder to understand.
Roma found itself back into the game with a 15th-minute equalizer on a bizarre own goal, but 10 minutes later a great surge and cutback from Andy Robertson brought a corner as Alisson blocked Mane’s low effort. Roma struggled to clear, with Dzeko eventually being pressured into heading the ball back towards his own goal. From there, Wijnaldum headed it down past Alisson, and the tie was essentially settled.
Roma's 4-3-3 causes problems
Roma had caused Liverpool problems late on at Anfield after switching back to its familiar 4-3-3, and it was no surprise that manager Eusebio Di Francesco reverted to that shape Wednesday. That gave Roma greater attacking width, and there was a clear early strategy of trying to get the rapid Stephan El Shaarawy in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold. The young right back was given little support by Mohamed Salah, who stayed high up the pitch, essentially playing a game of chicken with Roma left back Aleksandar Kolarov. But the Roma equalizer came from the other flank, just as its opening goal had in the first leg. This time it was Alessandro Florenzi with the cross, and as Lorenzo Pellegrini returned the ball across goal, Lovren’s slightly panicky clearance smacked into Milner’s face and back into his own goal.
But for all Roma’s efforts, it didn’t manage a shot on target in the first half–although it did hit the post as El Sharaawy’s shot deflected off Milner to leave Loris Karius scrambling across his goal.
The route down the left proved profitable for Roma seven minutes into the second half, though. Alexander-Arnold missed a through-ball, allowing El Shaarawy into the box. Karius had his shot covered but rather than pushing the ball clear, he patted it tamely into the center of the box, where Dzeko gratefully accepted the gift. The goalkeeper, just a couple of minutes earlier, had been fortunate not to concede a penalty when Dzeko was wrongly ruled offside. For all of Liverpool's success, Roma created its share of opportunities.
Can Liverpool stave off panic, lapses in the final?
Liverpool, going forward, is a team that plays in surges, regularly scoring two or three goals in rapid succession. But it also is a team that is prone to defensive lapses. The arrival of Van Dijk has made it more solid than it previously was, but this is still the team that let a 3-0 lead against Sevilla slip earlier in the competition.
The warning was there in the final 10 minutes of the first leg and the sense of anxiety was there throughout the second half of the second. There was a tentativeness to its attacking play, as though Liverpool was caught between the all-out assault that can blow sides away and holding possession. The result was a number of attacks that ran out of momentum around the edge of the Roma box. That unease spread throughout the side.
Karius has made the goalkeeping position his own in the second half of the season, but he had a skittish night, and it was revealing that Jordan Henderson yelled at him to be more decisive after he had stayed on his line as substitute Cengiz Under got on the end of a lofted ball over the top. Alexander-Arnold, too, was very fortunate not to concede a penalty for handball as he blocked a close-range El Shaarawy shot. The 19-year-old is a player of huge promise, but he had a difficult night.
Roma's pressure did bring a win on the night as Nainggolan smashed in a late drive and then a penalty after a baffling handball decision against Klavan. It wasn’t enough to really threaten the lead given the timing of it all, but it did highlight Liverpool’s struggle to control the game.
Roma could not fully take advantage, but a punishing side like Real Madrid might come their final showdown later this month.