Aleksandar Kolarov (left) and Kostas Manolas try to keep Mohamed Salah in check during Roma’s crushing first-leg defeat at Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final.
Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images
lightly fewer than four minutes separated Edin Dzeko’s goal for Roma at Anfield and the penalty awarded rather harshly against James Milner, and in that short space of time, the Italians rose from a trance. At 5-0 they were out, they would have needed at least six goals in the second leg. S At 5-2 Roma had more than a straw to clutch at, they had given themselves a glimmer of hope, suddenly required only half the number of goals, and had the recent memory of beating Barcelona 3-0 for inspiration.
Jürgen Klopp will not be short of advice this week on how to approach Wednesday’s return in the Stadio Olimpico; there are any number of extrapolations permissible depending on which side scores the first goal and when.
The matter is simpler than it looks, however, and the Liverpool manager knows it. It was Klopp himself who
admitted without being prompted
that he might have made a mistake in withdrawing Mohamed Salah too early. His explanation – that he needed to take the upcoming league game against Stoke into account – was reasonable and quite admirable. With Salah on the field, it was completely understandable to assume that the match was won and Roma were looking forward only to the plane home. It was only when he came off that the extent to which he had been keeping the opposition nervously pinned back became clear. “You can blame me if you like,” Klopp said, accepting responsibility for a strategic error.
Premier League points are
still important to Liverpool
, though with the benefit of hindsight it can clearly be seen that the best preparation for the remaining domestic fixtures would have been to ensure a place in the Champions League final when the opportunity presented itself.
Roma might have thrown caution to the wind in the last 10 minutes in any event, though to do so with Salah still on the pitch would have been to invite further damage to an already embarrassing scoreline.
The hour or so of play in which Liverpool did as they pleased, scoring all their goals and prompting one Italian journalist to report it was
like waking up in a Stephen King story, was reminiscent of a similar performance against Arsenal four years ago. The Gunners arrived at Anfield as league leaders, only to go 4-0 down in the first 20 minutes as Luis Suárez, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge ran amok, with Philippe Coutinho and Steven Gerrard pulling the strings in midfield.
Klopp may have perfected the art of pressing and developed the knack of winning games in short bursts of overwhelming attack, though he did not invent either. At their best
Liverpool were just as unstoppable under Brendan Rodgers and the result in February 2014 was that Arsenal retreated into their own half into a football equivalent of the fetal position, too scared to come out and leave any space to be plundered.
That is exactly the dimension Salah and Roberto Firmino give the present side, and as long as both are on the team sheet on Wednesday most of the worrying can be left to Roma supporters.
The Brazilian’s contribution to Salah’s excellent season cannot be overestimated; even with the Egyptian’s prodigious haul of 43 goals from 48 games, no one has come remotely close to suggesting Liverpool are a one-man team. They are not, and in fact, in most seasons Firmino would be a strong contender for player of the year.
Liverpool players can expect to play in an intimidating atmosphere at the Stadio Olimpico when they face Roma. Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP
On that subject, the voting for the Football Writers’ Association award closes on Monday, and those agonizing over a choice between Salah and Kevin De Bruyne will be glad they waited until after the first leg of the
Champions League semi‑final before reaching a decision. The Manchester City player has had an outstanding season, no question, and it may be that winning the Premier League in such style is an achievement that outweighs whatever Liverpool go on to manage in Europe. Yet Liverpool beat City three times this season and Salah was prominent on each occasion.
In addition to constant, relentless scoring, Salah has performed well in the big matches too, the important games against the very best opponents, the semi-final against Roma being a case in point. That should be the clincher, really.
If the story of the game was that Roma did not realize how big a talent they had let go, the footnote was that even Liverpool failed to realize how much they were going to miss him, even for just 15 minutes.