AS Roma started the match strongly, but Liverpool made all the right adjustments and absolutely battered their Italian visitors to the tune of a 5-2 win in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie. Mohamed Salah was the star of the night with two goals and two assists against his former team, but Roma have a lifeline in the second leg in the form of two crucial away goals.
The early stretches of the match were largely well-controlled by AS Roma. They didn’t have much possession, but they kept up with Liverpool’s high pace and used a disciplined setup to keep the hosts frustrated and off-balance early, while creating a few dangerous early chances for themselves. The opening spell of the match was marred by one thing, though, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went in for a clean tackle on Aleksandar Kolarov and appeared to bang the underside of his kneecap off the Serbian’s shin and then twist his knee, forcing him out of the match on a stretcher just 18 minutes in.
But after a spell of sorting themselves out following the injury-forced introduction of Giorginio Wijnaldum, Liverpool made a couple of tactical adjustments that completely turned the match around. Playing a little wider and adjusting their angle of attack let them start getting the cutting runs and passes they want, and the momentum turned around in a hurry. Sadio Mane had two bad misses and another goal chalked off for offsides in a matter of six minutes, and moments later it was Salah, an ex-Roma star, getting onto the ball and putting it into the back of the net with an absolutely phenomenal, practically-unstoppable finish.
Pick that one out!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 24, 2018
Absolutely nothing Alisson can do on this inch-perfect shot from Mohamed Salah. pic.twitter.com/zn2OjWMhzb
Salah and Liverpool weren’t done, though, and from the moment they took the lead the match was all Liverpool, all the time. Salah popped up again in first half stoppage time to dink the ball past Roma goalkeeper Allisson Becker, then played provider on two nearly carbon-copy goals in the first 20 minutes of the second half to run Liverpool’s lead out to 4-0, and to leave Roma looking absolutely scattered and broken.
Liverpool would add a fifth goal in the 69th minute — Roberto Firmino’s second of the night, after scoring the Reds’ fourth — and went into cruise control. They perhaps went a little too into cruise control, though, with a Dejan Lovren error on the back line gifting an easy goal to Edin Dzeko, giving Roma a narrow lifeline in the tie in the form of an away goal. Then even more sloppy play at the back gifted Roma a late penalty and a second goal, meaning that this tie is far from over despite earlier appearances.
The end of this match was very much reminiscent of Roma’s tie against Barcelona, where they snagged a late away goal in the first leg, then turned around a 4-1 deficit to make it to the semis. Liverpool will need to be much better in Italy than Barcelona were to claim their place in the final in Kyiv, but they’ve also shown all year long that they’re not afraid to go on the road and go toe-to-toe with anyone.
Liverpool: Loris Karius; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, Virgil Van Djik, Andy Robertson; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Giorginio Wijnaldum 18’), Jordan Henderson, James Milner; Mohamed Salah (Danny Ings 74’), Roberto Firmino (Ragnar Klavan 90’+2), Sadio Mane
Goals: Salah (36’, 45’+1), Mane (56’), Firmino (62’, 69’)
AS Roma: Alisson; Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas, Juan Jesus (Diego Perotti 67’); Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele De Rossi (Maxime Gonalons 67’), Kevin Strootman, Aleksandar Kolarov; Cengiz Under (Patrick Schick 46’), Radja Nainggolan; Edin Dzeko
Goals: Dzeko (81’)
Three things we saw
Liverpool looked surprised by Roma’s early organization and pressure
Roma came out with a high defensive line, a tight midfield, and brought a whole lot of pressure from the first whistle. That seemed to catch Liverpool very much off guard and they struggled to respond to it, especially after the unfortunate injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain early in the match. The strange thing, though, is that this setup from Roma should have been very much planned for, but it still caught Liverpool seemingly unaware.
This is the same basic tactical setup that Roma used to beat Barcelona, and it’s one that Eusebio Di Francesco has used frequently in the past when dealing with potent attacks, both at Roma and at his last coaching stop at Sassuolo. With it also being a good way to frustrate Liverpool’s typical brand of build-up play and choke off much of the service to their frightening front three, that should have been the main thing Liverpool prepared for from the start of the match. That certainly didn’t appear to be the case, though.
That said, Liverpool adjusted brilliantly
Liverpool may have been caught off-guard, but as has been the case so often this season, Jurgen Klopp saw something he could tweak and Liverpool quickly turned the game completely around. Starting around the 25 minute mark, Liverpool started playing a little wider and used more diagonal balls to try and pick apart Roma’s suddenly-beleagured defense.
The one major weak point of Roma’s setup was their lack of quality width, especially on their left side where the aging legs of Aleksandar Kolarov just couldn’t keep up with Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Exploiting that meant Roma started to get opened up more and more, and by the time Salah scored his phenomenal opener just over 10 minutes after Klopp made that adjustment in his team’s approach, they’d already had several other excellent chances to score, and had several more in the few minutes after his goal. The turnaround was sudden and explosive, and it all traced back to that one decision from Klopp.
Radja Nainggolan gave surprisingly little to Roma
Arguably Roma’s best all-around player since he joined them in 2014, Radja Nainggolan needed to put in another stellar performance at Anfield to give Roma their best chance at winning.
Part of the issue he ran into was tactical — he was pushed a little farther forward than he’s typically at his most effective — but it was also partly down to what Nainggolan did when he was on the ball. He too often took an extra touch or two, and that gave Jordan Henderson all the chance he needed to shut him down time and again. Eventually Nainggolan just kind of drifted out of the game, depriving Roma of their best player at a crucial moment. Even late in the match when Roma were charging and scoring goals, Nainggolan was almost aside the action, taking one poor shot and largely not providing much additional push. It was a disappointing night for the Belgian, and he’ll need to shake off whatever cobwebs held him back before the second leg begins.