Wednesday 16 January 2019

Magical Mo Salah puts Liverpool on the brink of Champions League final but late Roma goals plant seed of doubt

Liverpool's Sadio Mane celebrates scoring their third goal with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. REUTERS/Phil Noble
Liverpool's Sadio Mane celebrates scoring their third goal with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Miguel Delaney

Mohamed Salah does it again, but the question that will linger after how this game finished is whether Roma can do it again.

That natural concern of an Italian comeback that comes from their quarter-final against Barcelona will colour what was otherwise another very special night at Anfield, and ensure this bombastic 5-2 win isn’t quite absolutely certain of lifting Liverpool back to the highest stage in the club game. This, however, was still a night when a very special player moved onto the highest stage of player performance.

It was when the effervescent Salah transcended the triumphant brilliance he’s shown in the Premier League, to have the type of effect on the European Cup that really echoes through football history.

It’s going to take more than Roma repeating what they did against Barcelona. It’s going to take preventing Salah doing this.

The Egyptian has still put Liverpool on the brink of their eighth Champions League final, and offered a display to rival heroes from any of those previous occasions. He was the fire for everything that followed.

Because, as bad as Roma were for half an hour; as self-defeating as Eusebio Di Francesco’s tactics were; and as rampant as the whole Liverpool side were by the time the second half started… the initial difference was the deafening quality of Salah.

It was all the more impressive because, as easy it is to forget after a big win that for a long time looked as easy as this, there was a longish period when it had looked like this might be a much more difficult night for Jurgen Klopp’s side. Roma’s pressing game was initially offering more reward than risk, and a period of home panic that culminated in Aleksandr Kolarov rocking the crossbar with a long shot also saw Liverpool rocked by what looks a concerning injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

That meant it wasn’t a completely perfect night, and there was the serious news of a supporter getting stabbed by Roma hooligans before the game. That could cause further concern ahead of the second leg, beyond the scoreline.

In the fantasy world inside the stadium, though, Salah was offering a perfect football display. And a perfect response.

Up until that supreme 35th-minute strike, Liverpool players were only missing chances rather than taking, none more so than Sadio Mane. His uncertain and hesitant touch looked like they could be a prelude to one of those frustrating nights when nothing falls right.

They were only the prelude to Salah proving his greatness on another level.

To think that as recently as October he was still regularly being spoken of as a frustrating player himself, who often seemed unable to strike a ball with true conviction.

No one could possibly say that after his first strike here.

Just when the game was really on a knife-edge, just when Liverpool needed something to lift them… he lifted the ball into the top corner with an unstoppable job.

That was sensational in its imposing purity, but may well have been trumped by the casual impudence of the second. Put through on goal, and with goalkeeper Allison coming out, the Egyptian merely lifted the ball in another way. It was that was more delicious than decisive, Salah tantalisingly putting just enough on it to make over the line.

Liverpool had now seemingly crossed the line, such was the nature of Roma’s implosion. This was now the prelude to what should have been a thrashing. Rona’s high line was now just leading a high score, as their players didn’t know where to go in the face of such confident running.

He set up Sane for the third, before squaring for Roberto Firmino for the fourth. There then came what should have been the clincher as Dejan Lovren struck from a set-piece.

Klopp even felt confident enough to take Salah off - something that may now be a mistake, as Liverpool proceeded to commit a few more.

Edin Dzeko was allowed in to finally strike for the Serie A side, before James Milner was immediately adjudged to have handled the ball in the box. Diego Perotti stepped up to make it 5-2.

The reality is that it still looks like it might be too much of a step-up for the second leg.

Roma may have to score the exact same amount of goals they needed against Barca, and may be emboldened by having done it before against a notionally superior side, but the exact dynamics of the game are not the same.

They will also have to step out, and yet still try and stop Salah.

Right now that looks as difficult as stopping Leo Messi, and that’s really saying something.

Then again, this was quite a statement individual display.

Online Editors

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