When Roma’s Champions League campaign began back in August, only the most headsure Roma fans envisioned this—Roma performing on centerstage in the semi-finals, where every decision, every pass, every touch and even the twitch of individual muscle fibers is viewed by millions, if not billions (maybe, I don’t know). With Roma on the ropes against Shakhtar Donetsk and Barcelona, it seemed like the naysayers would get their day, albeit a few months later than they originally envisioned.
But something strange and unexpected happened after that Barcelona comeback; people started to believe. To believe that, despite all the summer upheaval, the controversial sales, and the shitshows against Serie A minnows, Roma would prove to be the Cinderella of this competition. It was improbable, but somehow Roma had willed their way to the semifinals of the Champions League.
In the buildup to this match, I tried in vain to capture the tenor of the fanbase—were we cocky, cautiously optimistic or simply waiting for the other shoe to drop—and given what was at stake tonight at Anfield that difficult task became damn near impossible.
But no matter where you watched this match (or if you were like me, racing down the highway to get home in time for kickoff), you were equal parts excited and nervous. Sure, Liverpool didn’t have the cache of Real Madrid or the domestic dominance of Bayern Munich, but they had arguably the game’s hottest player in Mohamed Salah, the gleaming point of an incredibly talented attacking trident, and that alone made them a forced to be reckoned with—but that’s all prologue, what happened at Anfield was paramount.
And what happened was an absolute calamity. In nearly every way, shape and form, Roma (and especially Eusebio Di Francesco) got this one wrong. Granted, through the first 20 minutes or so, Roma looked like (if nothing else) they’d choke a draw out of this match, and were it not for that fucking crossbar again, Roma would have drawn first blood, but Aleksandar Kolarov’s fine strike resulted in little more than a shower of rain drops cascading off the crossbar.
In an odd twist, what seemed like an advantage for Roma (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain going off) was really the key for Liverpool taking over this match. From that point on, Liverpool just kept pumping in long ball after long ball, exploiting EDF’s suicidal highline, catching them off guard and out of position. More to the point, the three man backline—slow by nature (Fazio), exhausted (Manolas) or finally regressing to the mean (Jesus)—was practically served on a platter for Jurgen Klopp’s attacking schemes. Beyond leaving far too much space in transition (though the midfield shares in that blame), these three were absolutely eviscerated by Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, who combined for all five of Liverpool’s goals, setting up four of those to boot.
All of this was exacerbated by Roma’s complete and utter lack of an attack. This was the bad Roma we’ve seen intermittently throughout the year coming home to roost at the worst possible time. Roma’s offensive output, if we can call it that, was only a fraction of Liverpool’s, with Edin Dzeko’s late goal in the second half serving as the lone bright spot on an otherwise dark day...
Wait, wait, wait....as I’m writing this, Roma just earned a penalty after a James Milner handball, and he converted it!
Ugh, should we be emboldened by those two goals, or are they just fools gold?— Chiesa di Totti (@chiesaditotti) April 24, 2018
Suffice it to say, Roma’s prospects just changed markedly with those two goals, but it doesn’t really take the stink off this match. Roma dug themselves a huge hole tonight, much of which was their own making (Salah’s goals were stupendous and unstoppable), so it’s hard to get too excited about those last gasp goals. Roma looked absolutely clueless for 75% of the match, so those two late goals can only remove so much of the sting.
I have absolutely no clue how to wrap this one up, do you? If this wasn’t the quintessential 2017-2018 Roma performance I don’t know what was. From grabbing the initiative early, only to be denied by the crossbar, to getting undressed tactically and having no response whatsoever, to getting jobbed by the refs, to losing men on set pieces, to divining their way into two away goals, this match perfectly encapsulated the Roma experience this season—one minute they’re unlucky, the next they’re shit, and the last they’re genius.
So, what happens next? Do Roma have another stunner up their sleeve? How will you react when all is said and done—are you grateful for merely being here? Is this but the first step in Roma’s grand plan, or has the entire campaign been a house of cards built on luck? Are we looking at a legitimate up and comer or was this all an aberration?
These are important questions to ask because they speak to the core of it—how much faith do you have in Roma’s current direction?
No matter your opinion, it’s going to be a long and reflective week.