Roma 4 Milner (OG) 15’, Džeko 52’, Nainggolan 86, 90+3 (pen)
Liverpool 2 Mane 9’, Wijnaldum 25’
The Reds ride their luck on more than one occasion in Rome, but deservedly move into the Champions League final after the highest-scoring semi-final in competition history.
As is often the case when Liverpool Football Club are involved, there was a simmering tension in the air on Wednesday night, despite the seemingly comfortable 5-2 lead earned in the first leg. A combination of the roiling atmosphere of the Olimpico, the Reds’ history of giving up three-goal leads, and the fact that Roma had overcome an equivalent deficit against Barcelona in the previous round, meant that visiting fans would never be entirely comfortable in the Italian capitol.
An early rush of Roman aggression reinforced that sentiment, as an early ball over the top ended with Edin Dzeko getting his head to the ball six yards out, before that same man made his way around Andrew Robertson minutes later, only to slide a pass across the box to no-one.
The 2017/18 Reds aren’t all-time European top scorers without reason, however, and showed why nine minutes into the game. Under pressure from James Milner, Radja Nainggolan played a blind pass towards the middle of the pitch, which was collected by Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian drove towards goal and slipped a pass into the run of Sadio Mané, which was expertly tucked home by the Senegalese attacker. Liverpool were 6-2 up on aggregate, and the Olimpico fell silent.
Not known for doing things the easy way, however, the visitors invited Roma back into the tie five minutes later, through the vaudevillian combination of Dejan Lovren’s boot and James Milner’s face. A harmless header from Patrik Schick bounced in front of Lovren, begging to be cleared to safety, only to be cannoned into the back of the net via the not insignificant bulk of Milner’s head. Fifteen minutes gone, and the tie was back where it started, with Roma needing three more goals to advance.
Andrew Robertson’s rise from Championship player to Champions League finalist over the course of a single season has been tremendous to watch, and halfway through the first frame, the Scotsman went on a surging run past Alessandro Florenzi. His cutback found Sadio Mané six yards out, but a hanging leg from Alisson saved the hosts. It was little help in the end, however, as a nudge in Edin Dzeko’s back from Virgil van Dijk on the snuing corner saw the Bosnian head the ball in the wrong direction, and Georginio Wijnaldum capitalised, heading home his first away goal in a red shirt.
The air had gone out of the home side now, and the pace of the game slowed down, with neither side mounting much significant offense. Stephan El Shaarawy — who gave Trent Alexander-Arnold all he could handle on the night — cut inside and hit a deflected effort off the post, but the Romans went into the break needing to score four.
Eusebio Di Francesco clearly got his side out of their funk at half-time, and the hosts came flying out of the blocks. Loris Karius was lucky not to concede a penalty when he brought down Edin Dzeko in the box on 49 minutes, as the Bosnian striker was dubiously called offside on the play. A few minutes later, El Shaarawy was allowed to cut inside once more, and though his effort was easily parried by Karius, the German knocked the rebound into the waiting feet of Dzeko, who did well to finish the chance.
On the hour mark, a long ball over the top found a streaking Cengiz Ünder, but Karius got down to keep the Turkish forward’s poked effort out. Three minutes later, the Reds rode their luck once more, as an unpressured Nainggolan was allowed to pick his spot for a cross. Alexander-Arnold mishit his clearance off Schick, only for the ball to fall to Shaarawy. The Italian’s volleyed strike could well have been goalbound, but hit Alexander-Arnold’s hand and flew over the bar. It was an obvious handball and Liverpool were fortunate not to give up a penalty.
The Reds — lacking options from the bench — were clearly tiring, but so were the Giallorossi, having expended massive energy on their sprint out of the gates. Dzeko missed the target after he was found with another ball over the top, before Roberto Firmino hooked his shot wide at the other end, having been played in by Mohamed Salah. Ten minutes from time, Dzeko again found himself facing Karius, having collected a deep cross that Alexander-Arnold failed to cut out, but he was unable to capitalise.
With Roma fading and the tie seemingly won, Jürgen Klopp brought on Ragnar Klavan and Dominic Solanke to wrap things up, switching to a 5-3-2 formation. The Reds have been less than convincing when switching to this formation in the past, and Nainggolan gave the hosts a late burst of energy as he drove a long range effort in off the post five minutes from time. Deep into injury time, the Belgian drove home a penalty, following a handball on Klavan, but it was too little, too late, and despite the narrow scoreline, Liverpool could celebrate their advancement to the finals.
Several things can be true about this tie at the same time. On the one hand, the one-goal margin does not accurately reflect the Reds’ dominance in chance creation over the two legs, but there is also no denying that both Karius and Alexander-Arnold were lucky to escape penalties and potentially evictions in the second leg.
Nonetheless, off to the finals we go, for the first time in 11 years. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid await in Kiev on May 26th — a full 13 days after the Premier League has ended — looking to complete an historic threepeat, and the Reds will be considered underdogs in Ukraine.
First things first, though. Next season’s Champions League ticket must be secured, and taking a point or more off Chelsea at Stamford bridge on Sunday will achieve just that.