Wednesday 22 May 2019

Liverpool must show composure to finish the job

Impressive home record gives Roma hope, but Reds' pace and poise can secure final passage

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp grimaces as he answers questions during yesterday’s press conference at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp grimaces as he answers questions during yesterday’s press conference at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Photo: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters

Miguel Delaney

As Kiev's Olympic Stadium and an eighth Champions League final loom ever greater in Liverpool's line of vision, there is one prospect looming greater than anything else over events on the pitch in Rome's Olympic Stadium.

It was the one thing Jurgen Klopp was repeatedly asked about yesterday, and one thing corroding what should be a natural confidence about Liverpool returning to club football's premier occasion, where they feel they belong. It is also one thing that would be more than worthy of European champions, and a truly Olympian feat in its own right.

That would be Roma completing a second sensational three-goal comeback in this Champions League. Withstanding this, and all the force around it, is the test for Klopp's side. "We will be ready," he said, but so are their opponents.

The fact Roma did it in their last home match in Europe, against a side as good as Barcelona, has accentuated the simmering Liverpool anxiety that came from those two late goals at Anfield.

The Roma squad can have faith from the numbers, to bolster their genuine faith in themselves.

"We need to believe we can do it," Radja Nainggolan said. "For us, the only thing we need to try is trying to score three goals and not concede."

They've already managed that twice in the Champions League this season - once in a very similar situation to this; once against another Premier League side in Chelsea - to go with the fact they haven't conceded a goal in the competition at home this season. The faith that comes from this alone is why it's possible. This is why the Roma deflation from the first leg has gradually given way to defiance over the last few days.


"I would like to make something clear," manager Eusebio Di Francesco declared on the eve of the second leg. "We are about to play a Champions League semi-final in front of 70,000 people. Do you expect us to sit back? No… we need to raise the bar in terms of physical effort, attitude, approach to the game and trying to score an early goal to have the fans behind us even more."

The tone was right. The talk was right. After Barcelona, Di Francesco is well aware how one quick goal can completely distort perceptions of the most distant of scorelines. It changes the nature of the tie. It is no longer about a comeback, but about a chase.

It also changes the entire mood. The problem for Roma is that Liverpool are aware of this, too. And they've still come out the other side.

If Roma can glean confidence from their comeback against a superior side to Liverpool in Barcelona, Liverpool can glean confidence from having so completely withstood a comeback against a superior side to Roma in Manchester City. They didn't just withstand it, either. They still won that leg 2-1.

And they've still won this first leg 5-2. There's also the much more relevant confidence that comes from that. Mere talk of last month's heroism from the Italians doesn't change the tangible effects of today's reality. Liverpool still have a resoundingly strong lead.

There are also the potential effects of that lead. Roma simply have to come out - as Di Francesco promised - but they will then leave themselves open to a side much better suited to swift counter-attacking than an out-of-sorts Barcelona.

That gives rise to the two tactical questions that will condition the game; that arise from the last one. How much will Klopp rein Liverpool in so as not to hand Roma a platform to get back into the tie, even though there is the enticement of attacking the space in behind to kill it?

How much will Di Francesco commit to pressing to getting the goals Roma require, given the pressure of the knowledge that one single slip could give Liverpool - and specifically Mohamed Salah - all the space they need to secure that space in the final?

These are the finer points and clutch do-or-don't decisions where managers really show their extra level; these are the more intensive details that really elevate occasions as big as this.

Di Francesco mentioned how it will be so different to Barcelona because Liverpool "plays less with the ball" but that's not all that's different. It does feel that Klopp's side will be so much more charged than a Barca team that were so oddly flat.

If there is one positive from the attack on supporter Sean Cox that has so altered the atmosphere around this tie, it is that his family in Co Meath can know that an affection for him is deeply affecting the team he loves. The Liverpool players want to do it for him, and add to everything the club has done in this competition that a supporter like Cox has so celebrated. That is something else around this European surge.

"We are here to fight for our dreams," Klopp said.

The fact that there is a "2004-05 vibe" around the club is no longer being talked about, but just felt, with that fired by the invigoration that comes from living up to so much history.

Klopp and Di Francesco did dismiss the relevance of the 1984 final on the eve of this rematch. This is, after all, Liverpool's 10th Champions League semi-final, and they have come through seven of the previous nine.

Such history also brings other lessons. Liverpool's healthy lead might leave them mindful of a story from one of their most tense semi-finals, but one that did lead to a final showdown with Real Madrid in 1981.

That was when Bob Paisley came across pamphlets for Bayern Munich supporters ahead of their second leg. Even though the score was 0-0 from Anfield, those pamphlets showed the way to Parc des Princes for the final.

Paisley, of course, used it, and Liverpool should be wary of Roma now using any similar signs of complacency. That is when a three-goal lead really is dangerous.

Liverpool know what they have to do, just as they knew how to get through that match in Munich in 1981, drawing 1-1. Progressing from Rome's Olympic Stadium and on to Kiev's is within their grasp. (© Independent News Service)

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