Thursday 13 December 2018

Liverpool's destiny rests with Anfield cauldron as another epic Euro night awaits

Liverpool fans ahead of Man City win
Liverpool fans ahead of Man City win
Liverpool players go through their paces in training at Melwood. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

Jason Burt

Anfield. Under the lights. A big European night. A Champions League semi-final. Some football fans may scoff at the depth, the emotion, the intensity of such an occasion and what it can provoke, but it only has to be witnessed once to be believed; to be converted.

Then, even the most myopic of sceptics changes; for it is real and it is tangible and it can overwhelm the most formidable of opponents, as Pep Guardiola discovered most recently, and Jose Mourinho in the past.

There is no doubt that Jurgen Klopp has harnessed that, the first Liverpool manager to do so with its full power since Rafa Benitez in 2005... and we all know what happened then.

Liverpool reached the final again in 2007, again overcoming Chelsea at this stage, but this time it is not a domestic opponent who stands in their way but Roma, a club and a name who in themselves evoke glorious European memories for Liverpool, not least the victory over the Italians in 1984 in their Olympic Stadium and Bruce Grobbelaar's "spaghetti legs" in the first European Cup final decided on a penalty shoot-out.


Alan Kennedy sealed Liverpool's fourth European title with his spot kick, a fourth title in just seven years, with Benitez adding that fifth 21 years later.

Thirteen years on from then and there is again a growing sense of destiny about Liverpool's Champions League campaign and, increasingly, this epic competition is evolving into one in which mental strength, belief and that power of emotion become pre-eminent, as Real Madrid have proved in winning it three times in four years.

Roma are dangerous, they have to be to have reached this stage. Only the serious teams survive this far. Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester City, Paris St-Germain, Manchester United and Chelsea are among those who have fallen by the wayside.

To reach the last four is an astonishing achievement in itself and there is a thirst for revenge from I Giallorossi after 1984, which is the closest they have come to winning the trophy with the big ears.

Just as Liverpool will have wanted Roma, then Roma will have wanted Liverpool, ahead of either Real or Bayern Munich. And just as Liverpool produced their calling card, their warning shot, by so impressively beating City 5-1 on aggregate, so did Roma by remarkably overturning the 4-1 deficit they suffered away to Barcelona in the first leg of their last-16 tie.

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Beating Barcelona, even a Barcelona not as awesome as in recent years, by any margin is some feat. They have Lionel Messi, after all.

To have to win 3-0 and then to win 3-0 is historic and, to do that, Roma again kept a clean sheet at their own stadium in which an extraordinary atmosphere can also be whipped up.

It means that having topped a group that included Chelsea and Atletico Madrid - as with Liverpool, Roma were seeded in Pot Three when the draw took place last August - they have not conceded a goal in Europe this season, with Shakhtar Donetsk also having failed to score against Roma away.

That Barcelona result also suggests that even what would have been regarded as an emphatic first-leg advantage is no longer seen as that in the Champions League, especially if the away team score, as Roma did at the Nou Camp.

But then again, no one would back against Liverpool scoring in the second leg, although the way Roma nullified Shakhtar and Barcelona is a warning.

As the competition's top scorers - with 33 goals in just 10 matches - and with their formidable attacking armoury and a defence galvanised around Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool will believe - and they will be favourites to reach the final in Kiev on May 26.

Can Roma stop their former player, Mohamed Salah? That has been the most obvious theme of the build-up and, as familiar as they are with the Egyptian who left them last summer for a snip of £37 million, that is easier said than done.

Salah has moved to a whole different level and Liverpool will attempt to target the cumbersome former Tottenham Hotspur defender Federico Fazio.

Possibly Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco, known for his boldness, may switch to a back three, flooding his midfield in a 3-5-2 formation as he did against Barcelona to deal with Messi. And Salah is Liverpool's Messi.

But can Liverpool stop the man for whom Salah provided so many assists, Roma's lead striker, Edin Dzeko, who has again proved to be one of the most accomplished No 9s in European football?

Stopping Roma from claiming an away goal may be as important to Liverpool's prospects as winning the match and achieving a substantial advantage. Van Dijk's role is therefore clear.

What the quarter-final against City proved is that the redevelopment of Anfield, with its impressive new Main Stand, opening up the stadium, does not mean the atmosphere has been diminished.

Just as impressively, Klopp has rebuilt on the pitch and stirred the emotions. Liverpool have thrust themselves among Europe's elite once more. Can they now take the next step? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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