Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it looks to have fallen in the space of ninety minutes. Eusebio Di Francesco had marshalled his men through to this point, conquering the likes of Barcelona along the way, but venturing to the fields of Anfield Road was a stretch too far for the Italians. One of the greatest performances ever witnessed in a European semi-final saw Roma put to the sword; a rampant Liverpool smashed five past them, and in truth could have had many more. A late rally from the vanquished side saw them steal two away goals, but Klopp can now march on Rome with a three-goal lead.
It says something about the new standards that the German has instilled that many fans came away from the match with at least a hint of frustration. The very notion that a performance in which five goals are scored in a Champions League semi-final is somehow not good enough is a bizarre one, and yet that was the feeling amongst some – the two late goals were sloppy ones to concede, and introduced at least a tiny hint of doubt into Liverpool minds. However, to dwell on this would be absurdly negative. Five goals. In a semi-final. The magnitude of the achievement is hard to take in. The Anfield side have very much announced their return to the top level of the game, and they are making opponents at that level look amateur. Such are the usually fine margins at this rarefied peak of the sport, fifteen of the last seventeen home first-leg winners have gone on to win the tie – a home win is often the slight advantage that can settle things, and Liverpool have produced a home demolition. A Champions League final is in touching distance: this is not a time for negativity, this is the most exciting time to be a Liverpool fan in at least a decade.
Not least amongst the reasons for this excitement is a certain Mo Salah. The Egyptian once again produced a display of the highest quality, tormenting his former club with his pace, trickery and finishing. Oh, the finishing. The first was a masterpiece of both power and precision, rifling a strike into the very top corner after he had been allowed to cut inside from the right. Alisson, arguably Roma’s best player this season, was left helpless as the ball flew past him: this was a feeling he would be getting used to for the rest of the night. The second goal, in its own way, was just as good: Salah timed his run to perfection before delicately lifting the ball over the onrushing Brazilian stopper. Anfield held its breath as it looped up – would it drop in? The colossal roar that followed provided the answer.
This is far from a one-man team, however: both of the other members of the front three would hit the net before the night was done. It was Sadio Mane who made it three, sending the Liverpool fans into total raptures – he had missed some big opportunities in the first half, but was in the right place to turn home a cross from close range. Firmino, who had registered the assist for both of the Salah goals, then set about getting on the scoresheet himself. His first was almost a carbon copy of Mane’s goal. He showed the awareness to pick up a good position, and reaped his reward with an easy finish. His second, to bring the team’s goal tally up to a staggering five, was a simple header from a Milner corner; Roma looked broken, and could not even master the basics at this point. Incidentally, the assist makes Milner the all-time leading assister for a single Champions League season: this fittingly marks his remarkable renaissance. The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so devastating on a personal level for a player just beginning to hit the form of his career, makes it all the more important that Milner can keep up these high standards.
Of course, the game ended on something of a sour note. Lovren, who had been integral to repelling Roma’s early onslaught in the first half, was caught out – a relatively simple ball over the top towards Dzeko was misjudged, and the Bosnian had time to take it down and finish past Karius at the near post. Then came the penalty: Milner was perhaps naïve to have his arm out as he moved to block the ball, but it is nonetheless a harsh interpretation to call it a deliberate handball. In any case, Perotti converted the penalty coolly to give Roma at least a semblance of hope. However, in any other circumstances, would Roma’s chances even be under genuine discussion having lost the first leg by three goals? The combination of the timing of their two goals and their success in overturning a margin of the same size against Barcelona in the last round have made people underplay the enormity of Liverpool’s achievement. There is an almost an attitude that it is ‘only’ three goals, and that somehow Klopp’s men are still very vulnerable going into the second leg. Anything could happen, that goes without saying, but whether the lead is three or five it would take a disaster to throw it away in Rome. The Anfield side are undoubtedly in the ascendency, and firmly so – for this, every single player on the pitch deserves immense credit.