The Champions League semis got underway at Anfield on Tuesday night. After a slow start Liverpool went crazy to get out to a 5-0 lead thanks to 2 goals and 2 assists from Mo Salah and Robert Firmino. Sadio Mane chipped in the other.
Things did finish a little rocky when Eden Dzeko and Diego Perotti (on a penalty) scored to give Roma life going home for the second leg, but when all is said and done it was an impressive 5-2 Liverpool win.
Let’s dig a little deeper into this:
1. The start
For the first 20-25 minutes to start this game Roma was actually the better team. They only threatened the Liverpool goal once when Aleksander Kolarov tested Loris Karius from distance with a rocket that was knuckling forcing Karius to tip onto the bar to keep it out.
It was definitely a moment of nervousness seeing how close Roma came to getting an early lead so what were they doing to slow Liverpool down to get an early lead:
- It started with their play in the midfield. Roma started the game with a 3-5-2. They had their typical midfield 3 of Kevin Strootman, Radja Nainggolan, and Daniele De Rossi plus they had Kolarov and Alessandro Florenzi as wing backs. This allowed them to match Liverpool’s midfield 3 and get their wing backs up the pitch which kept Liverpool’s fullbacks pinned deep. Something I talked about in my preview.
Their midfield 3 was winning the battle in the midfield which partly was due to the Liverpool midfield 3 giving them way too much space. This enabled to get Roma out to the start they got off too.
2. What changed?
It all started to change around the 20-25th minute.
When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain left in the 18th minute which looked like a serious knee injury it looked like things could get worse for Liverpool.
I talked in my preview blog how Chamberlain could be a huge factor in the middle with his pace to breakdown the veteran Roma midfield trio, so I will be honest losing him was a real concern for me.
I don’t know if Liverpool made an adjustment at this point in time or if the players started executing the game plan better but the Reds started to find their footing soon after Oxlade-Chamberlain left for Gini Wijnaldum.
The first difference was the other player I talked about before the game who could be a key to the game. This player was Robert Firmino.
Liverpool fans know Firmino’s value how much he means to the team and the attack even when he doesn’t touch the ball. So this isn’t a surprise to us but so often his work doesn’t get noticed.
Yes, he will share headlines with Mo Salah for their 2 goals and 2 assists each but it was Firmino’s movement which opened the game up and allowed Liverpool to get on the attack.
Firmino was dropping into midfield which of course brought a defender with him which opened up the space behind him which got the attack going.
Before Salah’s opener in the 35th minute Sadio Mane had two golden chances that he sent over the bar. The first he really should have scored. But this all happend because he was able to get behind the defense and a big part of this was Firmino’s movement.
Firmino assisted on both of Salah’s goals. He was working back when he picked up the ball for the opener and his settle from Virgil van Dijk’s long clearance got the second goal started.
To be honest Firmino has never gotten the attention he’s deserved for all his work. So often even Liverpool fans scream from the top of a mountain top that Liverpool needs a true number 9 that is a better finisher.
On the season in all competitions he has 29 goals and 16 assists. How many out and out number 9’s could give you those goals and assists. Plus how many 9’s would give you all the other work he does. His movement which opened up space for Salah and Mane plus all his work defensively when he gets back defensively to cause turnovers to get the attack going the other way.
I’m not saying he’s the best number 9 on the planet but he is the best number 9 for this team. That I don’t think is really debatable.
I don’t think you’ll hear this from a lot of people but I thought Wijnaldum was crucial to this as well. We knew that Firmino doing what he did was critical to the success before the game, but the Wijnaldum contribution was shocking, for one reason we didn’t expect to see him today unless it was much later in the game as a substitution.
I said earlier why I thought that losing Oxlade-Chamberlain was a significant loss in this game but Wijnaldum’s contribution was a bit surprising for one reason it isn’t normal for him to do this.
It’s more than likely that Jurgen Klopp noticed this and took advantage of being able to talk to him before entering to instruct him to do what he did.
He had Wijnaldum play much higher on the pitch than Oxlade-Chamberlain was. Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing very deep. Almost playing in a deeper position to give Trent Alexander-Arnold support to deal with Kolorav early since he was a bit of a problem.
But by moving Wijnaldum much higher up the pitch it allowed Liverpool to regain control of the midfield.
He along with Jordan Henderson worked together to poke the ball free to get the first goal started.
Gini didn’t have a spectacular game but his positioning was a significant key in Liverpool taking control of the game in the second half of the first half.
He was at his best at being a frustrating pest to Roma, he had 3 interceptions on the day. It was good to see him step up when his team needed him the most.
As I talked about earlier in the first 20-25 minutes a big reason was that Roma was that Roma had control of the game in the midfield, plus Jordan Henderson was giving them a little too much space.
But once Liverpool got control of the game Jordan Henderson and James Milner were very solid which kept the attack going.
The duo was able to control tempo and dictate the pace for the last 20 minutes of the half which was a huge factor for Liverpool to have good control of the game going to the half.
I roughly touched on Henderson’s role in the first goal when I was talking about Wijnaldum but it was his tackle of Eden Dzeko that got the ball free to get things started on Salah’s opener.
Milner was basically looked at as a squad player coming into the season. After playing left back admirably last season but this season he was maybe going to be depth there and some depth in midfield, but during the second half of the season partly due to injuries and partly due to Klopp leaning on his veteran experience he has been vital to their success.
He’s started 7 of their 11 Champions League games. Whereas he’s only started 15 of 35 Premier League matches. It’s not a coincidence he’s been in the starting 11 for their biggest games and he’s performed his best in those games.
It was really the Manchester City game at home in January that he really shined more than he had shined all season. His work was incredible on that day and his work is always incredible. He’s like 80 years old and is the best conditioned athlete on the team. I swear he could run 24 hours straight without breaking a sweat.
The most incredible thing about his season that on Firmino’s finish on the corner it gave Milner an assist, this assist gave him 9 assists on the season in the Champions League which broke a record for most assists ever in a single Champions League season.
For real for all the remarkable things for this Liverpool season that may have been the most remarkable.
3. Roma got their tactics wrong
I thought the 3-5-2 was the right way for Roma to approach the first leg but where Eusebio Di Francesco got it wrong was the way he had his wing backs playing.
No doubt a lot of Roma’s success on the attack this season has been from getting Kolorav and Florenzi forward, so getting them forward is always something they want to do. But the way Di Francesco played them against Liverpool was very risky and ended up burning them in the end.
They were playing way too high which enabled Liverpool to take advantage of the space they left behind them. This was something before the game I had hoped would happen but I thought Roma would pick their spots when to get then forward.
Playing the 3-5-2 was fine but playing them that high was a gamble that didn’t work and may have been the single biggest tactical reason for this result.
Who knows maybe the early success had something to do with this. Having the control they had in the first 20-25 minutes maybe gave them a false sense of security but once Liverpool got a foot in the game this was definitely something they took advantage of.
As good as these two are at getting forward they don’t have the pace to get up and down the wing against a team like Liverpool who probably has more pace than any team they have ever faced. It was simply asking too much from them to get forward but also not allow Liverpool the space coming back on the attack.
They should have been more conservative and not played them as high but hey sometimes you gotta live and learn.
One other thing about their tactics that surprised me was it really wasn’t the 3-5-2 that was expected it was more of a 3-4-3 or a 3-1-3-1-2. As the game went on Nainggolan really pushed up. He played well but he pushed up more than I thought he would and De Rossi ended up playing really deep, so as Liverpool’s midfield became more balanced after the first 20 minutes Roma’s midfield became very unbalanced. That is one thing they will definitely fix for the second leg.
I probably could have just written a 1000 words about how great these 3 were and been done with it.
The impact that these 3 had on the game was the biggest reason Liverpool is going to the second leg with a 5-2 lead.
As we talked about it took them some time to get going but once they got going they made Roma look silly.
It all started getting Mane in space when he should have scored the first but it continued with the 3 of them slicing and dicing this Roma team into shreds for the next 60 minutes on their way to a 5-0 lead.
It was absolutely incredible but then again we shouldn’t be surprised we have seen this team do this to everyone they have faced all season.
One of the best things about them is that they’re able to do it in a variety of ways.
The aforementioned Mane getting behind the defense got it started, then it was Salah getting space down the right which was the last thing Roma wanted and it was almost incredible how many times he was one on one with a Roma defender but a big reason for that brings us back to high how their wing backs were again.
Salah’s first goal almost seemed impossible but it was the perfect shot the type of shot that only the best players in the world pull off. He somehow was able to hit the perfect shot to the top corner far past from the right side of the box for the opener.
His second was him getting in behind the defense with a chip that you have to be so calm to be able to execute and we all know that there isn’t a cooler calmer customer in the world right now. But it was also the little short passes he and Firmino played to get free, then Salah made the run into space to allow him to get into the position to pull it off.
Then for the Liverpool third, he had acres of space down the right side thanks to a perfect ball by Alexander-Arnold (he was offsides but don’t tell anyone I won’t). From there he was able to run at the defense. He probably could have scored himself but made a nice little pass across for Mane for a tap in.
The fourth was another little link up with Alexander-Arnold. TAA flicked a difficult ball from van Dijk forward to Salah who again had all kinds of space down the right wing. This time he ran at Juan Jesus who he pushed to the inside and then moved back to the outside leaving Jesus frozen, then playing a perfect right footed ball across the 6 yard box for another tap in.
The 5th was another one for the front 3 as Firmino headed home a James Milner corner to give the Reds a 5-0 lead and a foot in the door for the final.
Man of the match is tough in this one. Firmino was so important besides his two goals and two assists but go back and watch the first four goals. The plays Salah made on those were special. He’s seriously at the same level as Messi and Ronaldo at this point. He has a chance at the Ballon d’or. The World Cup and beginning of next season matters but if he can carry Egypt to the quarter finals of the World Cup and even get this Liverpool squad to the final he has a chance especially if Portugal and Argentina flop at the World Cup, which is possible and say Real Madrid goes out in the semis against Bayern Munich.
I wanted to say Firmino because I respect the hell out of all the little things he does, but it’s Salah today. He was at another level than anyone else on the pitch. His former Roma teammates probably wonder who the hell that guy is.
5. The finish
Obviously giving up 2 goals in the 81st and 85th minutes wasn’t the way anyone wanted to see this game finish.
They just gave up 2 goals in 9 minutes on Saturday but they had an excuse as 3/4 of the normal back 4 wasn’t in there so for it to happen twice in a couple days is a little bit more concerning.
I’m honestly more concerned about how they finished these games from a big picture point of view than I am more concerned about letting Roma back into the tie.
You get a little worried when you start to see some of the old habits creeping back in.
Like for the first Roma goal. It was Lovren who misjudged the ball in the air which is how Dzeko was free to beat Karius.
Lovren has been spectacular since van Dijk has arrived. He’s always been a much better player than most Liverpool fans will admit, but the one thing that keeps him from being someone that I can totally trust is mistakes like this.
Sometimes he just doesn’t use his brain. The game is 5-0 you don’t have to win every ball, plus he just has this weird thing about misjudging balls in the air. The same issue that has plagued Joe Gomez and Alexander-Arnold. I don’t know what it is about depth perception with these guys but they need to figure this out. It’s cost them too many goals this season.
All he had to do on this play was back off, get on the goal side of Dzeko and things would have been fine.
The second was a bit of a shit call for me I didn’t think it was a handball. But they put themselves in this position by their level of play dropping off immensely in the last 10 minutes of the game.
This is where I’m concerned. This is something that plagued us earlier this season and I thought this was behind us but the last two games tells us they’re not. Let’s hope it’s just two games, shit happens and this isn’t a problem at all.
On both occasions, this happened after Mo Salah came off. We all know how good he is and all that but their level of play shouldn’t drop off that much when he comes out late in games. Hopefully, it’s a coincidence but it’s something to ponder.
One thing about Klopp is when things like this have happened this season he gets them corrected and gets them corrected in a hurry.
I’ve also thought that the lack of depth could be an issue here. These things keep happening in the last ten minutes and it just might be because the team is exhausted. They had a breathtaking 60 minutes but it also can be from fatigue. With the lack of depth right now this is something that is concerning about going all the way in the Champions League but also getting the job done in the Premier League and finishing in the top 4.
As far as this is concerned at 5-0 this was over but at 5-2 Roma has some life and it will force Liverpool to be on their game in the second leg but I feel like we’re clearly in the driver’s seat and will advance.
I was shocked but then again not shocked at how many people were almost acting like this was a loss because they gave up those 2 late goals.
Yes, it gives Roma some life but seriously how can’t you be thrilled after that? The Reds played some ridiculous breathtaking football for 60 minutes and I guarantee myself included if you would have said to me before the game I guarantee you that Liverpool would have a 5-2 lead after the first leg I would ask you where I can sign.
A lot of people are saying well they did it against Barcelona down 3 goals coming home. Yes, that is true and it was probably the biggest upset/come back in Champions League history. Probably more improbable than Barca’s 6-1 second leg win last season against PSG to overcome a 4-0 first leg loss.
But here is the differences between what they did against Barca than what it will be like against Liverpool. First of all the first leg against Barca was a 4-1 Barca win, but this game was a game that Roma wasn’t outplayed in. Actually Roma probably outplayed Barca and was unlucky to lose 4-1. Hell unlucky to lose at all. So, going into the second leg they no doubt had confidence if they could get an early goal it was game on.
Plus Barca sat back in the second leg. They have been a more pragmatic team this season but it didn’t work against Roma. The game plan was sit back, soak up pressure and wait for Messi and Suarez to do something special. Usually this works but not in this game. Messi played one of the worst games he’s ever played.
Barca doesn’t have the pace Liverpool has. They have Dembele but only brought him in late which I ripped Ernesto Valverde for at the time. Pace was basically Liverpool’s biggest factor in winning the first leg and their biggest advantage over Roma coming into this tie. I don’t think Roma is going to find pace over the next week plus I don’t think Liverpool is going to get any slower.
Yes, they still will have their work cut out but I’m more confident in their chances of winning this now than I was before the game.
The worst thing that happened in this game was losing Oxlade-Chamberlain to a knee injury.
I haven’t heard anything official but was listening to talksport after the game and they said the premlinary thoughts were it is a torn ligament which will keep him out for the rest of the season and for the World Cup.
First of all it sucks for him. For any player to potentially miss the Champions League final and the World Cup would hurt. He’s improved so much in his one season at Liverpool it’s a real shame to see this happen to him. Just human feelings I’m gutted for him this sucks.
From a Liverpool perspective, this sucks just as bad. We all know this team is as thin as Nicole Richie when she was on the Simple Life. The last thing they can do is pick up another injury. They have a real shot at playing in the Champions League final and it sucks that they won’t be at their strongest. Plus knowing they have to rotate against Stoke on Saturday and maybe next Sunday against Chelsea you have to start to wonder who they will even have available to do so. It makes the dropped points against West Brom hurt more now. They seriously may be playing kids.
This team has been resilient and they will have to continue to be resilient if they want to accomplish all their goals the rest of this season.
This was a spectacular night in Liverpool lore. Don’t let the last ten minutes ruin your night. Celebrate this. We have been waiting for this for a decade and dreamed that Klopp could take us there so celebrate this what we are watching is special, this team is special. Don’t take it for granted. Enjoy this ride. Things like this dont happen every day.