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What If Roma Hadn’t Lost the First Leg to Liverpool in ‘18 Champions League?

Roma was tantalizingly close to its first European final since 1984. Then Anfield happened.

Liverpool v A.S. Roma - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Leg One Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Hindsight is 20/20. Once events have played themselves out, we can always look back on the past and think What if?. We tend to muse over important life decisions and ponder how things would be different if we had grown up in a different town, attended a different college, taken a different job, or asked our crush out.

Just as things may look very differently when we consider our alternate life decisions, these suppositions can also be applied to sports. We are often left to wonder after an important match or game: What if he hadn’t pulled that shot wide? What if he hadn’t left that pitcher in for one batter too many? What if, what if, what if? Those two words can be applied to almost anything.

This week as we pose a number of What if questions, those two words will lead us to conjure up some important Roma recollections, both positive and negative. Today we’ll look back on one of the most painful memories of recent seasons: What if Roma hadn’t lost the 2018 Champions League Semifinal first leg to Liverpool?

Naturally, What if questions haunt us most after events don’t turn out the way we’d like them to. When it comes to sports, that often means after a loss. Undoubtedly, we have seen plenty of painful losses in our time as Romanisiti. In my 15 or so years as a fan, the 7-1 beat-down at Old Trafford, the Pazzini double in 2010 that cost Roma the Scudetto, and the Coppa final loss to Lazio all haunt my memories. However, the most recent big-game gaping wound to Roman pride has to be that disastrous night at Anfield.

Roma just had to play it smart— limit the damage and try to find a crucial away goal— and the tie would be wide open heading to the Olimpico for the second leg on May 2nd. After all, Roma used the combination of an away goal and home clean sheet in the previous two rounds against Shakhtar and Barca to advance on aggregate.

Yet, for some reason, after looking like a tactical genius against Barcelona in their epic comeback, EDF got the best of himself when Roma traveled to Northwest England. EDF tried to outfox Jurgen Klopp—much like he did Ernesto Valverde—by running out a three man back line. Unfortunately for Roma, Klopp isn’t Valverde and Liverpool were much better suited than Barca to exploit lead-footed defenders Federico Fazio and Juan Jesus.

It became evident very early that Roma would struggle with the blistering pace of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. And Salah made Roma pay for EDF’s gamble. The former Roma-man was kind enough not to celebrate against his ex-mates after after a first half brace (If only he has finished so well for the Giallorossi two years earlier in Madrid. But I digress). Things went from bad to worse as Roma fell behind 5-0. Two late goals salvaged the slightest respect and hope for the Giallorossi in a 5-2 defeat.

Yet, unlike their encounter with Barcelona, a three-goal deficit heading into the Olimpico would be too much for Roma to overcome. The Giallorossi fought valiantly despite falling behind twice, winning second leg 4-2, but ultimately losing the tie 7-6. They were an El Shaarawy post or an uncalled Trent Alexander-Arnold handball away from reversing Liverpool’s scoreline and heading to extra-time 7-7. In the end that anticlimactic night at Anfield did them in.

So, that leads us to our What if question. What if Roma Hadn’t Lost the First Leg to Liverpool? Or at the very least what if they kept it close, say 3-2?

Based on the way the two legs played out, it’s unlikely EDF’s side would’ve been able to pitch another home shutout. Liverpool just looked too dangerous in attack. However, it’s entirely plausible to think that Roma could’ve pulled out a 2-1 victory to see them through on away goals or even a 3-2 that could’ve seen them at least head into extra time.

At that point, maybe a packed Olimpic would’ve been enough to inspire the Giallorossi to reach their first European final since 1984; a final that Roma ultimately lost on penalties to none other than Liverpool at the Olimpico. Talk about exorcising demons. Roma could’ve done it two decades later at the scene of the crime. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold.

In the final in Kiev, Real Madrid would’ve been heavy favorites against a Roma side on a Cinderella run, especially considering that, just two seasons earlier, Los Blancos dispatched Roma in the Champions League quarterfinals 4-0 on aggregate. And ultimately, Madrid ended up bossing a Liverpool side that lost Salah to injury, winning 3-1.

Real Madrid v AS Roma: UEFA Champions League
Besting Real Madrid in the final would’ve been a tall order for the Giallorossi.
Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Nevertheless, there’s no telling what could’ve happened in a one-off final. Maybe Roma would’ve found a way to lift its first ever European trophy. But, even if it didn’t, reaching the final would’ve been a signal of intent from the Giallorossi on the European stage. The exposure would’ve been huge with almost a half-billion people tuning in around the world.

Could the effects of reaching a final had any long lasting effects on the Giallorossi? It’s possible. Perhaps the taste of a near-victory and the added monetary gain of the final would’ve been enough to convince Pallotta to turn down Liverpool’s pounds for Alisson. Maybe Nainggolan and Strootman would’ve been kept around for one last go of it.

That probably would’ve been enough to see Roma again qualify for this season’s Champions League and likely save EDF and Monchi’s jobs, but that means no Petrachi or Fonseca. And no Nainggolan deal means no Zaniolo in Giallorosso.

AS Roma v Avellino - Pre-Season Friendly
A trip to the final may have meant more of this brain trust running things.
Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Would we all have traded a shot at Real in the final for another season of EDF and Monchi? Probably. Would we even know or care about some Zaniolo kid if we’d made the final and kept the fan favorite Radja Nainggolan around? Maybe not.

Would those things have been in the long-term interest of the club if it was still dismantled a year later and didn’t land Zaniolo? Probably not, especially if the final was ultimately lost.

So, while it’s certainly fun to ponder what could’ve happened had that night at Anfield worked out better, with Roma making the final, it still produces a butterfly effect: A small change in that match could’ve led to a much larger change down the road. Going down that rabbit hole could lead us to a darker place than we are in now. The trophy cabinet would likely still be empty and Monchi could still be constructing rosters for EDF. Sound like fun?