If anyone had suggested at the start of the European season, that one of the UEFA Champions League semi-finals will feature either Liverpool or AS Roma, it would have been dismissed as wishful thinking. But sometimes the unexpected does happen and in rarer cases, it happens with a double whammy. The first semi-final of this season’s Champions League will feature not one of those two underdogs but both of them. After progressing to this stage by beating England’s champions-elect team, Liverpool will, on Tuesday night host Roma, who outdid Barcelona on away goals in the previous stage.
Liverpool have been rampant in the Champions League this season. The Reds’ return to Europe’s grand stage has led to big wins at each and every stage since playoffs, a record 39 goals scored thus far having conceded only 10 and them being the only unbeaten team in the competition so far. Manchester City were expected to halt Liverpool’s bandwagon in the quarter-finals but they were soundly beaten in both the legs. The Reds would perhaps have preferred a better omen for the semi-final than what the unexpected draw against West Bromwich Albion afforded them but throughout this season, they have not had minor setbacks in the league keep them back on the European stage. That too, when the stage is a European night at Anfield – last of the season – one can expect Liverpool to come out firing on all cylinders.
If Liverpool’s progress to the semi-finals is a surprise, how Roma are playing at this stage is completely flabbergasting. At the start of their season, they lost their star from the last season – Mohamed Salah to their next opponents. They had to negotiate a group that had the likes of Chelsea and Athletico Madrid. Then they had to overcome Barcelona in the quarter-finals. That they are visiting Anfield on Tuesday night is nothing short of a footballing miracle. They have also had the opportunity to rest key players and still build a string of victories in Serie A. Since beating Barcelona, they have drawn against Lazio in the Rome derby and won against Genoa and SPAL 2013.
- Liverpool are unbeaten in last fourteen of their UEFA Champions League matches. Against Roma, their history goes back to the 1984 final, which the Reds won on penalties after drawing 1-1 in regular time. Counting that as a win, Liverpool have won thrice, lost once, and drawn once against Roma in five games. However, if we include friendlies, Roma have won the last three matches.
- This is AS Roma’s first semi-final appearance in a UEFA competition, since their UEFA Cup semi against Brondby in 1990-91, which they won. They have appeared twice in UEFA competition finals – in 1990-91 against Inter Milan and prior to that, in the 1983-84 season, when they faced Liverpool in the final. The Giallorossi have lost both their finals. Liverpool’s last semi-final appearance in Champions League was in 2007-08 and in Europa League, they played at this stage just two years back in 2015-16.
- Liverpool are called European royalty for a reason. The Reds have played 193 games in European Cup/ Champions League history, winning 108, drawing 45, and losing just 40 of those, scoring 360 and conceding 162 goals. For AS Roma, the numbers read as 101 played, 36 won, 38 lost and 27 drawn with 128 goals scored and 141 conceded.
- Form-wise, Liverpool have been in fearsome form in Europe all season. They have scored 39 goals, winning 8 and drawing 4 of their 12 Champions League (including play-off) matches. Roma have scored 15 goals in their 10 games, winning 5, drawing two, and losing three of their games so far.
While this semi-final tie is a great story at the level of both the teams, it is also a great story at a personal level – for Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian left Roma to arrive at Anfield, only to meet his old team in this high stakes tie. What Salah has achieved since he moved from Rome to Liverpool has caught the whole world’s fancy though. He is the first Liverpool player since Luis Suarez to win the Premier League Player of the Year award. He is also the first Liverpool player in more than a generation to score 40+ goals in a season – 41 goals in 46 games and counting – he is in outstanding form. Since he went goalless in the league loss to Manchester United in early March, he has not had a single appearance without at least one goal – scoring 10 in 7 appearances. He might have some emotions about the reunion with his old team, for whom also he scored in truckloads, but he has gone on record to say how important it is for him to reach the final and win it. Roma should not be expecting any mercy from their ex-winger despite Dzeko texting Salah to show some humour and comradery between the players.
Dzeko is Roma’s highest goal scorer in this campaign, both in the league as well as in Europe. He has scored 6 and assisted 2 goals in Champions League, to go with fourteen goals and three assists in the league. Not only is he a good striker, but he also has the experience of playing against Liverpool, having played them 11 times and having scored three goals against them. As Roma’s home leg against Barcelona showed, Dzeko will likely be the focal point of Roma’s attack and a lot of service to him will be aerial, which is a well known weak point for Liverpool.
Other than the injuries to Matip, Lallana and Can, we can expect a full-strength Liverpool side to start, with everyone back to their starting positions. Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Lovren, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Firmino were rested against West Brom and will start on Tuesday. Salah and Mane were not rested but they will definitely start as well.
For Roma, Aleksandar Kolarov, Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele De Rossi and Edin Dzeko will return to the starting XI after being held back against SPAL on Saturday. Rick Karsdorp and Gregoire Defrel are the only reported absences for Roma.
It is a Champions League semi-final at Anfield on a Tuesday night. One can say that it is a fixture tailor-made for Liverpool to be favourites. Yes, they are the favourites to win the first leg. But, if they need to learn anything from Barcelona’s and Shakhtar’s experiences, it is that at their home Roma can stifle any opposition, so the key to beat them is to beat them soundly at your home and without giving away a precious away goal to them. That last part is going to be tough for Reds.
Liverpool 3 – 1 Roma