Goals aplenty make Roma vs Liverpool a semi-final to sing and dance about

Paul Hayward
The Telegraph
Virgil van Dijk celebrates Liverpool making the Champions League final - AFP
Virgil van Dijk celebrates Liverpool making the Champions League final - AFP

To understand it you just had to look at Trent Alexander-Arnold, 19 and Liverpool born, celebrating in front of the away supporters with his shirt off. Jurgen Klopp’s right-back was surrounded by kindred spirits but also in a world of his own.

Mark Lawrenson recalled that the Roma manager knew his side were beaten in the 1984 final here when Liverpool’s players walked round the pitch beforehand singing a Chris Rea song. No team that confident was going to go home without the European Cup. Klopp’s side are still a leap away from being European champions, but Alexander-Arnold, who comes from West Derby and joined the club aged six, is one of several in this squad who are turning from boys to men.

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Thus Liverpool are already winners in the developmental stakes: Champions League finalists in Klopp’s second full season in charge, with individual improvement all across the field. 

Back in 84, Liverpool had class, history, aura, built up over two decades. This time they came to Rome as revelations. And they came with goals. If this year’s Champions League semi-finals have resembled basketball at times, you can hardly ask Liverpool to apologise for being the first team to reach 46 goals in a single Champions League campaign. Their prolific scoring is only partly explained by the defensive frailties in front of them. The biggest cause is their irresistible movement and finishing.

Sadio Mane can be the least celebrated of the trident and still open the scoring stylishly. Georgi Wijnaldum can start the game badly and still head Liverpool’s second en route to a 7-6 aggregate victory. This was not a semi. It was an arms race.

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Liverpool, of all clubs, know the value of not giving up, from the final in Istanbul 13 years ago. Eusebio Di Francesco’s team also know it well. They fought to the end, almost chasing another lost cause down, until the final whistle released Liverpool from their “suffering” as Klopp called it.

A minority of Roma’s fans had displayed dark the power of dysfunctional tribalism, turning the Stadio Olimpico into a security compound, a week after the appalling injuries suffered by a Liverpool supporter, Sean Cox, outside Anfield. But the majority brought a more benign kind of pressure to bear on Liverpool, the new hot ticket in European football.

There was a strange kind of madness about this tie, with Liverpool losing their No 2 coach, Zjleko Buvac, who left the party just as it was getting really good, Steven Gerrard being courted by Rangers and away fans having to observe elaborate travel plans to ensure their safety. Outside the ground, the notorious bridges over the Tiber stood like crossing points from a nightmare, even with the swarms of carabinieri.

<span>Sadio Mane scored the first of six goals on the night</span> <span>Credit: Getty images </span>
Sadio Mane scored the first of six goals on the night Credit: Getty images

This kind of tension sits badly with the beauty of Rome, but maybe the two are indivisible. Turmoil  is expressed in every Roman street, some of it merely emotional, other parts of it political and much darker. Football feeds this need for melodrama, but Roma were trying to feed it from an impossible position, against opponents who were also expected to fall long before this stage. 

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The script was that Virgil van Dijk’s defensive unit would pick up where Mo Salah, Mane and Roberto Firmino left off at Anfield. Liverpool would probably pinch an away goal to ease the pressure, but the main aim was stopping Roma doing what they did to Barcelona in the last-round. Roma’s fans came here thinking a second miracle was possible. Liverpool fought against their own belief that a 3-0 Roma win was impossible, given the effervescence of their own front-three, which reflects the modern cult of forwards working in gangs of three.

<span>Liverpool celebrate reaching the Champions League final</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Liverpool celebrate reaching the Champions League final Credit: Getty Images

Seldom has a 5-2 starting point felt so tantalising, and Liverpool could never relax on their seemingly commanding position. The threat was always there. Salah, meanwhile, now knows the pointlessness of not celebrating goals against former clubs. At Anfield, Salah was apologetic about his two first-half goals, raising his palms and avoiding the group hug. His reward was to be jeered by Roma fans on his old hunting ground - a more rational approach, if a little ungracious.

Roma have been derided as semi-final impostors. But you could hardly question their spirit. They pressed and hustled, hounding Liverpool’s two young full-backs, Andy Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, and giving Van Dijk the biggest test of his Liverpool career, four months in. Roma went direct, whipping diagonal balls forward and trying to create mayhem in Loris Karius’s penalty box.

<span>Liverpool players pay tribute to fan Sean Cox who remains in a coma</span> <span>Credit: AFP </span>
Liverpool players pay tribute to fan Sean Cox who remains in a coma Credit: AFP

With eight minutes left, Klopp sent Ragnar Klavan on as a fifth defender in place of Mane, but even then the tension was maintained - and intensified when Radja Nainggollan struck from long-range with five minutes left, and then scored from the penalty spot. Desperation, of different kinds, gripped both teams. 

Football ceases to be academic at this point. It becomes a ferocious battle of wills. You either stand or break. Purists will say that no tie with so many goals can be hailed as a classic. But it’s too early in Liverpool’s return as European heavyweights to be throwing academic caveats at them.

They were forged by fire in this tumultuous semi-final, which propels them into a final against another team, Real Madrid, who made it to Kiev the hard way. Liverpool earned another stroll round the pitch and a song.

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