Liverpool fans can be forgiven for thinking Friday’s Champions League semi-final draw is a straightforward one.
Jurgen Klopp’s charges managed to avoid record 12-time winner Real Madrid and Bavarian heavyweight Bayern Munich, instead, drawing a Roma side that stands out as an outlier among European giants with rich continental pedigree.
Real, Bayern, and Liverpool are three of the European Cup’s most decorated sides with a combined 22 titles paired with 10 more unsuccessful finals appearances. Roma hasn’t reached a continental semi-final since 1984, and for I Giallorossi, Friday’s draw will provide an undesired reminder of how that campaign ended with a loss to the Merseyside lot in the European Cup finale in the Eternal City.
But before Liverpool supporters make travel plans for the May 26 final in Kyiv, there are a few reasons to fear Eusebio Di Francesco’s giant killers.
Tasked with a challenging group that featured Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, it would have been easy to write off Roma. Instead, the Italians finished top of the quartet to book a last-16 date with a very good Shakhtar Donetsk side that took the first leg 2-1 thanks to Fred’s stunning match-winner. Cengiz Under’s away goal would prove to be the difference as Roma advanced following a 1-0 second-leg victory.
Roma’s continental campaign was supposed to end there. Ernesto Valverde’s Catalan giants were firing on all cylinders on the backs of an unbeaten La Liga season. The first leg at the Camp Nou certainly reflected as much. Daniele De Rossi and Kostas Manolas chipped in with own goals to go with Gerard Pique and Luis Suarez’s second-half tallies as Barcelona took a 4-1 advantage to the Stadio Olimpico. And then, arguably the performance of the tournament happened to the surprise of pundits and supporters alike, as Roma stunned Barcelona with a 3-0 result to send the pre-tournament favourite packing.
Roma netminder Alisson has been heavily linked with a Merseyside move, and after Wojciech Szczesny headed north in the summer to deputise for Gigi Buffon at Juventus, the Brazilian has snatched first-choice duties to great results. A slick melange of sweeper and ‘keeper in the mold of a tidy Manuel Neuer with hints of Ederson, Alisson has been instrumental to Roma’s success this season.
Often the point of origin of many a Roma attack, Alisson is also an outstanding shot-stopper, but it’s his proficiency with the ball at his feet that might be his greatest asset. Considering Liverpool often generates goals courtesy of Klopp’s high press, Alisson’s ball-playing skills are the perfect tool for countering pressure. 81 percent pass completion doesn’t hurt either, nor does an astounding rate of 3.38 saves per goal. Decent numbers.
Liverpool is at its best when high-flying front-three Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino attack on the counter. Roma will know this and happily concede possession while throwing men behind the ball. And no ordinary men at that, as Di Francesco’s squad boasts a robust set of midfielders in Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, and suddenly in-form De Rossi. Behind them are a selection of centre-halves the ilk of Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas, and Juan Jesus, who all fancy a tough tackle. And after the trio played an influential role against Barcelona, confidence won’t be a problem.
When it comes to potential formations, it’s ultimately up to Di Francesco, who switched to a 3-4-1-2 in the second leg against Barcelona. That set-up both surprised and stifled Lionel Messi and Co., and it’s likely Roma will again line up with a plan to inhibit Salah. Di Francesco has most commonly opted for a 4-3-3 formation this season. “It only has one problem,” the former Sassuolo gaffer told the Guardian’s Paolo Bandini. “You struggle to mark your opponent’s playmaker.” Roma shouldn’t have that problem against the Reds, who instead of tailoring the attack to a traditional playmaking puppet master, thrive on the organic front-three and a fluid understanding of positions.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)