They may have shown frailty late on, and they may have hit the panic button in an all-too-familiar way, but in spite of a late mini-collapse and the surrendering of two away goals, Liverpool carry a significant advantage into their Champions League semi-final second leg with Roma. After winning 5-2 at Anfield on Tuesday night they are in the driver’s seat to qualify for the final in Kiev, Ukraine.
The Italian side cannot possibly hope to contain and deny Mohamed Salah and Co. at the Stadio Olimpico next week. The away goals scored might have felt important in those final throes of the first leg—as if they might pave the way for another “Romantada” comeback next Wednesday—but when the dust settles, the Giallorossi will realise the futility of their upcoming task.
It doesn’t matter how they setup, what formation they choose or which players they deploy. The balance of the tie creates a need to score three and keep a clean sheet, and it is impossible to stretch yourself far enough to cover both ends of that spectrum against such an opponent. Just ask Manchester City—a team more talented, better at pressing and more dangerous in attack than Roma.
Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are too direct, too fast, too dangerous; James Milner and Jordan Henderson are too adept at picking them out with early, press-resistant passes; and the defence—Dejan Lovren lapses aside—boast a rigidity we haven’t associated with the Reds for some time.
The natural riposte here is to point out Roma managed what is required—a 3-0 win—against Barcelona in the quarter-finals. After they had completed that minor miracle, Kostas Manolas powering home a header that etched his and his club’s names into the history books, it would be safe not to underestimate the Giallorossi again.
The fightback against Barcelona was dubbed “miraculous”, but while few really expected it, it can be explained: Roma channeled their aggression in midfield and managed to overwhelm a slower, less mobile set of players. Perhaps ironically—and here’s the big problem this time around—that’s the same plan Roma fell prey to at Anfield; they played the part of Barcelona as they were outnumbered, outmatched and tactically tamed.
Eusebio Di Francesco will have to produce another tactical masterplan for the ages, correcting the faults of his high-line, no-pressure strategy on Merseyside. Worse, said masterplan must be one that stems the tide of one of the most dynamic, blistering attacks in Europe.
Liverpool’s style and way of attacking has proved near-impossible to get the better of since the turn of year, which is when Klopp finally pieced his defence together and completed the jigsaw. Only Swansea City (1-0), West Bromwich Albion (3-2) and Manchester United (2-1) have beaten them, with Manchester City failing three times, Porto twice and Tottenham once.
There’s a common thread that links those defeats: Swansea and United sat back, packed men behind the ball and blocked the middle of the pitch off. They dedicated resources to stopping Firmino flick balls into Salah’s path and removed any space for Salah to run into. Swansea were happy to have just 28 per cent of possession, United delighted to muster 32 percent and West Brom enjoyed 31 per cent in their FA Cup triumph.
Roma can’t do that in the second leg and, looking forward, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich wouldn’t possibly dream of doing that in the final. Bayern’s approach might be measured, but in no way would it be defensive; Real Madrid would attempt to outgun the Reds, staying true to the principles of chaos that govern their high-risk way of playing.
Playing the way the big teams do doesn’t work against Liverpool. You may be able to hurt them, pierce their shells, but for every arrow you send their way, they fire a volley back. It’s why their record against the top sides is so good, why the only guaranteed way to stress them out is to set up camp on your own goal line.
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