Liverpool 5 Salah 36’ 45+1’, Mané 56’, Firmino 62’, 69’
Roma 2 Dzeko 81’, Perotti (pen) 86’
Despite capitalising brutally in the middle third of the match, the Reds were unable to hold onto their comfortable advantage, conceding two late goals to a Roma side who will now believe in their chances ahead of the return leg.
There was a big surprise early on Tuesday, as Eusebio Di Francesco decided to replicate his 3-4-3 formation from the Giallorossi’s comeback win over Barcelona, despite the overwhelming historic evidence suggesting this would be suicidal against Liverpool’s front three.
It didn’t start off too bad for the visitors, however, with their press quite effectively preventing the Reds from building their game from the back, and despite an early scare through Roberto Firmino — who slid a cross-shot wide of Alisson’s far post on five minutes — Di Francesco’s men were comfortable in the early going.
On seventeen minutes, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was stretchered off with a knee injury after hyper-extending his leg in a challenge, and Georginio Wijnaldum was brought on. Only a minute later, Aleksandar Kolarov rattled the cross bar behind Loris Karius after the German goalkeeper misjudged the flight of the Russian’s shot and barely managed to palm it onto the woodwork.
After half an hour, the hosts began asserting themselves, turning up the pressure and playing more vertically. Sadio Mané was played through on goal, but hooked his effort over the bar, before the same man absolutely skied the cutback from Firmino after the Brazilian had turned Kostas Manolas inside out. On the next possession, Firmino found Salah, whose curling effort was knocked past the post by Alisson.
Mané had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, but the Reds would not be denied for much longer. Collecting the ball at the top of the box after yet another break from midfield, Salah took advantage of a standoff-ish Manolas, placing an inch-perfect curler into the top corner. It was an incredible finish, and nobody was the least bit surprised Salah had delivered.
Not content with the one goal, the hosts kept pushing, and Dejan Lovren smacked a free header off the crossbar after a corner, before Mané was played in by Wijnaldum on yet another counter, this time unable to get round Alessandro Florenzi as the last man. One could be forgiven for thinking the Senegalese attackers was just having one of those nights.
As extra-time began ticking away, a long clearance into midfield was perfectly laid off by Salah to Firmino, who battled his way past Manolas. Meanwhile, Salah had expertly dragged Juan Jesus away from the centre, before cutting his own run to the inside. Firmino fed his striker partner, and the Egyptian finished a glorious move off with a dink over Alisson to make it 2-0.
Rather than adjusting his backline, Di Francesco brought on another striker and pushed his wingbacks further up the pitch for a 3-5-2 formation in the second half, perhaps hoping to overwhelm the Reds. It had the opposite effect, and within ten minutes, it was 3-0, as Trent Alexander-Arnold drove a long ball down the right flank for a suspiciously offsides Salah, who had all the time in the world to pick out Mané in front of goal for an easy finish.
On the hour mark, Firmino was seemingly brought down in the box after Mané had skipped past Federico Fazio, but the attack ended in an Andrew Robertson shot getting blocked instead of a spot kick. It would only be a minute before Firmino had his just rewards, however, as Salah left Jesus for dead and served it on a platter for the Brazilian at the back post.
Twenty minutes from time, Firmino headed home a corner, and the finals appeared wrapped up. Salah was brought off to be replaced by Danny Ings, and Di Francesco finally changed to a 4-3-3.
Never on to miss a good mucking-up, Dejan Lovren handed Edin Dzeko and Roma a way back into the tie ten minutes from time, as he casually drifted behind his own line playing the Bosnian onside, before equally casually missing Radja Nainggolan’s chipped ball over the top with his head. Dzeko chested down and tucked home, and the bowed heads of the visitors seemed to rise back up.
A bit of pressure and an inadvertent handball later, Diego Perotti stepped up and slotted a penalty into the top corner, cutting the Reds’ lead to 3 and giving the Romans a genuine way back into the tie for the return leg.
Liverpool were absolutely immense for the middle 40 minutes of this match, making another example of why a three-man backline is a very silly idea against this offense. Across the board, the Reds were first in every duel, faster and more precise than their counterparts, who seemed unable to cope with the relentlessness of Klopp’s gegenpress.
Which makes it all the more idiotic to let off and give up two simple goals towards the end. Roma overcame a three-goal deficit to advance at the Olimpico in the quarter-finals, and as such, dismissing their chances at this point would be immensely arrogant. Nonetheless, a 5-2 lead is nothing to scoff at, and one would put money on this team being able to score at least once in Rome, so Di Francesco’s men still have a mountain to climb.
First off, however, is a home date with Stoke on Saturday and an opportunity to — if Swansea can lend a hand — secure participation in the Champions League for next year, before the return leg in Italy next Wednesday.