Sunday 23 September 2018

Brian Kerr: Liverpool will not be as easy to bully as Barca were

Klopp's men have more weapons than the Catalan giants who crumbled in quarter-finals

FC Barcelona's Andres Iniesta vies with AS Roma's Kevin Strootman. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty
FC Barcelona's Andres Iniesta vies with AS Roma's Kevin Strootman. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

Brian Kerr

Of the four teams remaining in the Champions League, all are easily recognisable but only three have identifiable pedigree.

Roma, despite their quarter-final heroics, were the draw everyone wanted.

Liverpool's victims in the 1984 final in Rome, when Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbles hobbled Francesco Graziani in the penalty shoot-out, Roma remain the only one of the quartet yet to be crowned European champions.

Real Madrid, seeking an unprecedented modern-era hat-trick, have won 12 times, Bayern and Liverpool five each.

Domestically, they remain just as unheralded; they have won just three league titles compared with Madrid's 33, Bayern's 28 and Liverpool's 18.

As Manchester City and PSG have already discovered despite their billions, pedigree matters in the Champions League, even if the last four are hardly scraping the pennies together.

Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Liverpool's Roberto Firmino. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Two quarter-finals in successive seasons a decade ago represented a high watermark of achievement for the capital-city club who have suffered some hammerings in that time - 6-1 to Barcelona, 7-1 twice (Bayern and Manchester United).

They then travelled to Stamford Bridge where the English champions were expected to win. Chelsea duly led 2-0 but Edin Dzeko's two brilliant goals, added to Aleksandar Kolarov's deflected effort, turned the tide in one of the competition's best group games, only for Eden Hazard to conjure up a face-saving equaliser to make it 3-3.

The swift return in Rome marked a turning point in both their fortunes; Roma took the game to Antonio Conte's men, pressed high and unsettled them, scoring three goals in a convincing win.

Travelled

And yet when they travelled to Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16, despite taking a first-half lead, they were wholly unconvincing in a 2-1 defeat, demonstrating a stark lack of intensity and poor passing quality.

Against Barcelona, two own goals blind-sided them in the away leg but they could have had two penalties and an unmarked Diego Perotti blazed a header wide from no distance. All before Barca scored.

Even at 3-0 down, manager Eusebio Di Francesco made attacking changes and they peppered the home goal; Dzeko reduced the margin but a late Luis Suarez strike condemned them to heavy defeat and, more than likely, elimination.

Roma talked up their chances but how could they hope to translate mere words into decisive actions?

A key change in formation, and a departure from a lifetime of managerial experience, would prove crucial.

Di Franceso - he was christened Eusebio after the great Portuguese striker - had always been a disciple of one-time Roma predecessor Zdenek Zeman, the Czech who became a cult hero with his use of an attacking 4-3-3 system in a country renowned for catenaccio and the rigid 4-4-2.

Di Francesco chose a moment of crisis to shrug off his master's influence, switching to three centre-backs for the second leg against Barcelona.

His concern with such a switch was that his side may not be able to contain the influence of the playmaker Lionel Messi.

Instead, they attempted to contain his team-mates first.

Defending from the front, Roma pressed Ter Stegen's goal, denying him the opportunity to build play with Alessandro Florenzi on one side harrying Jordi Alba while Kolarov rolled back the years and hassled Nelson Samedo with the vim of a teenager.

If Ter Stegen tried to locate Sergi Busquets, struggling after injury, or Andres Iniesta, they in turn were hounded by the ever-present midfield three of Kevin Strootman, Radja Nainggolan or Daniele De Rossi.

Forced then to play it long more than they would have wished, the isolated Suarez was gobbled up by any of three defenders, of whom one was always available to dip into midfield and have a chop at Messi every now and then.

I had never seen the world's best player have so little impact. He was fouled and shackled into oblivion in a concerted effort that succeeded. Could Salah be their next victim?

Di Francesco's second surprise had been to pitch the tall, rangy young Czech striker Patrik Schick into the fray for his European debut, despite the fact the summer signing had only played in 13 league games and had yet to score.

He and Dzeko aided and abetted the hassle-and-harry effort that propelled his side's energetic display and left Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique looking uncomfortable.

They were like a team possessed, such a far cry from the listless outfit I had seen play Shakhtar here just weeks before.

An early goal, Dzeko's smart finish after De Rossi's clever ball split Umtiti and Alba, energised the stadium. The team and crowd fed off each other.

A second from the spot, just before the hour, when Dzeko was hauled down by Pique, sparked a conclusion that suddenly seemed almost destined to happen.

Unsurprisingly, the manager has retained faith in his new-found system since then but, strange as it might seem to say it, I believe Liverpool are a better team than Barcelona and will pose far more threats. Roma knew if they could limit Messi's influence, they could exert their physical strength elsewhere.

Liverpool will not be so easily cowed and even if Roma can mute Mohamed Salah's influence, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane are capable of match-winning displays themselves.

Faced with that threat, Di Francesco may unveil a broadly similar formation but more withdrawn in nature; more 5-4-1 than 4-3-3 and I expect Perotti or Stephan El Shaarawy to replace Schick.

Klopp's side will be used to facing such an approach, however, and while the Italians remain unbreached at home in Europe, unlike say, Juventus, none of Roma's defenders have an Italian passport.

Serbian Kolarov was seen as more of an attacking wing-back with City before being discarded due to concerns about age and pace.

Argentinian Federico Fazio formed part of Spurs' £100m splurge of Gareth Bale money but despite early promise didn't last much longer than a year. In goal, sweeper-'keeper Allison Becker - ironically emerging as a target for Liverpool - is ahead of Manchester City's Ederson in the Brazilian side who will feature in Russia this summer.

The midfield three have been constant; like Francesco Totti before him, De Rossi is a one-club man.

Nainggolan, who has struggled to become central to Belgium's plans under Roberto Martinez, is a powerful presence on the left, an aggressive dynamo and can pick a pass.

Target

If Liverpool were to target any attacking midfielder, it will be him.

In his youth, Strootman once blazed a brilliant oranje trail in European football but injuries have plagued the Dutch man in recent years.

Young Turk Cengiz Unger is an exciting 20-year-old wide man; his corner set up the decisive third goal against Barcelona.

Roma are highly unlikely to push up as City did in their two clashes, particularly as their less than pacey defence - aside from Kostas Manolas - can be exposed by the quickness of Liverpool's front three.

Liverpool's renewed resilience in defence may not, in the first leg at least, be overly tested.

Roma's primary aim will be to limit any potential first-leg damage - and Liverpool are capable of wreaking such havoc - and hope that they have something worth fighting for at the Stadio Olimpico.

Their away goal at Barca proved decisive. It was deserved. Dzeko - with five goals in the last six away games - demonstrates his side are well capable of supporting him at appropriate times. City, sensing extraordinary progress at Anfield by sending an extraordinarily attacking team, eventually got stuffed, but Roma will send a more sensibly-coached team with less ability.

Unfortunately for them, after being unable to stop Salah leaving Rome last summer, they are also unlikely to stop him returning to haunt them as Liverpool continue their impressive march towards Kiev.

Irish Independent

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