Liverpool put one foot into the Champions League final with a thumping 5-2 win over Roma at Anfield, led by the irrepressible brilliance of Mo Salah.
The Egyptian put his former side to the sword with a stunning performance, leading the Giallorossi on a merry dance as he scored two and made two more, with Roberto Firmino (2) and Sadio Mane also getting on the scoresheet.
But the Reds allowed their visitors a sniff of a comeback ahead of their meeting in the Stadio Olimpico next Wednesday, with late goals from Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti – the Argentine scoring from the penalty spot – keeping the door to Kiev ajar.
Roma started brightly, operating with the same 3-4-2-1 formation which had seen off Barcelona on a manic night at the Stadio Olimpico and looking to slow the tempo and dictate with the ball.
The Reds were forced into an early change as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain departed on a stretcher with an apparent knee injury, suffered in the act of tackling ex-Manchester City fullback Aleksandr Kolarov; Gini Wijnaldum came on into midfield.
Kolarov’s next act was to fire a 30-yard thunderbolt, with little backlift, which left Loris Karius looking uncomfortable and somewhat fortunate to flick the strike onto the crossbar, when he’d seemingly been attempting to palm it out towards the corner flag.
At the other end the much-touted Brazilian No.1 Alisson’s handling was exemplary during the opening stages, but come the half hour mark, Mane should have had the hosts in front.
First the Senegalese raced clear, but when faced with the whites of the Giallorossi keeper’s eyes he fired well over.
And within 49 seconds, after Salah had escaped Juan Jesus’ attentions, Mane had another opportunity 12 yards out, but fired high, wide and not at all handsome.
Salah was next to chance his arm as Liverpool began to take control, his curved effort being turned behind. Unfortunately for the visitors, that was just the sighter.
Because next time the Kop’s Egyptian idol cut into the penalty area and opened up his body, there was no mistake; Kostas Manolas allowed Salah to step onto his left foot too easily, the Greek didn’t get tight enough, and Salah’s arcing effort left Alisson with no chance, glancing the underside of the crossbar as Salah scored for the fifth successive Champions League game, his 42nd goal of the campaign.
Dejan Lovren hit the crossbar with a header from eight yards and Alisson denied James Milner as his defence continued to evaporate before his eyes.
The 25-year-old was keeping Eusebio Di Francesco’s men in the game, but could do nothing as Salah struck on the stroke of half-time to put Klopp’s side in command.
Roma gave up possession on the edge of the Reds penalty area, and the ball was quickly fired into Roberto Firmino. His hold up play was typically intelligent, holding off a challenge, turning and driving at the visitors’ defence, before feeding his pass into the path of Salah’s perfectly-timed run.
With Juan Jesus unable to keep pace with the jet-heeled striker, Salah waited for the onrushing Alisson to drop, before sumptuously dinking a delicious finish into the back of the net.
Roma’s defensive line was proving disastrous, too high even when they weren’t getting close enough to pressure their hosts, and 10 minutes into the second period they were punished once more.
There appeared little danger when Trent Alexander-Arnold looked up in Liverpool’s right back position, but he shaped a pass down the right side, onto which Salah raced unopposed; he eased into the box, assessed his options, and slid to Mane, who finally found the back of the net.
Minutes later, Firmino ensured all of Liverpool’s fabulous attacking threesome had found the net, and it came down a familiar route; Alexander-Arnold ball down the line, Salah advanced and drove past Jesus, crossed low, and the Brazilian turned into the gaping goal.
Firmino didn’t have long to wait for his second, rising unmarked to nod a Milner corner into the net to put Klopp’s side 5-0 up.
But after Klopp has subbed off Salah Liverpool dropped a gear – and allowed Roma a sniff of a chance ahead of next week’s second leg.
Lovren lost track of Edin Dzeko as a cross came into the box with nine minutes remaining, and the Bosnian made no mistake, controlling expertly before beating Karius at his near post.
And when Milner was harshly adjudged to have handled a goalbound shot by German official Felix Brych, Argentine winger Perotti coolly converted from 12 yards.
Here are five talking points from Anfield…
1. Mo Salah, no problems
At what point do we run out of superlatives for the PFA Player of the Year? Because that point is surely fast approaching with the quicksilver star.
Roma had smothered Lionel Messi in their win over Barcelona, converging on the Argentine with a defensive quintet and the diligent Daniele de Rossi marshalling in front.
But they simply had no answer for their former teammate. Di Francesco’s side didn’t help themselves, pushing too close to the halfway line and allowing space for Salah and co to run into.
But you still have to finish. And right now, no-one is finishing as well as the Reds’ No.11. He’s assisting too.
He’s fast closing on Ian Rush’s Liverpool record for goals in a season (47 in 1983-84) and is one away from levelling Ruud van Nistelrooys record for most goals scored by a Premier League player in all competitions (44).
Gradually the side has developed around Salah as the season has progressed, pushing him closer to goal and with less responsibility defensively. It may just be on the verge of firing them to European glory.
"It seemed like a lot of euros at the time!" Reds’ owner John W Henry recently quipped over the €42million Liverpool paid Roma to land Salah last summer. It has long since looked a bargain.
2. Pity poor Alisson in defeat
He keeps Man City’s outstanding stopper Ederson out of the Brazil team and has been hailed as the ‘Lionel Messi of goalkeepers’.
And as those in front of him parted like the red sea, it was fortunate for the visitors that Alisson looked every inch as good as he is cracked up to be.
The Brazilian could do little about Salah’s first half double, nor Mane’s third, and at times it seemed as though he was all that was standing between the home side and a trip to Kiev.
Throughout his handling was excellent (bar one second half hiccup) his decision-making sound and his footwork composed, even in the face of unrelenting pressure.
Unfortunately, he could do nothing about wave after wave of Liverpool attack. After Firmino made it four, Alisson sat, seemingly in despair. You could hardly blame him.
3. Fantastic Firmino
Salah is taking all the headlines, and rightfully so.
But Firmino continues to mature and grow into one of the very best centre-forwards anywhere.
The Brazilian’s perpetual motion, intelligence and ability to both score and make goals has made him the perfect focal point to this Reds side. Salah is thriving from playing with him and vice versa.
He’s now got 27 goals this season and 15 assists. That’s quite the haul for a side’s so-called ‘second’ goalscorer.
4. Di Francesco found wanting
Eusebio Di Francesco did a fine job at Sassuolo over two spells, guiding them from Serie B into Serie A – being fired in 2014, then re-hired five weeks later when results didn’t improve – and then into the Europa League in his final campaign.
So you can’t begrudge him getting his shot as manager of the club whom he represented over 100 times during his playing career, and with whom he won a Scudetto.
But he was found tactically wanting on a horror night at Anfield.
It isn’t the first time this season. Inter Milan in August, Milan in February and Fiorentina earlier this month are all occasions when Di Francesco has been out-coached, but this wasn’t even that; Di Francesco set out with one plan, then simply didn’t have the wherewithal to change it.
Pushing up and defending with a high line is only good if you can pressure in the opposition half. For that you need players who can get in the faces of opponents and get about the pitch – De Rossi, at 34, isn’t your man, nor are Kevin Strootman (after two serious knee injuries) and Kolarov (ditched by Manchester City for that very reason) – and a defensive line blessed with recovery pace; this one isn’t.
He spent much of the second period arguing with members of his side, and is fortunate that they return home with only a three-goal deficit to claw back.
That he spoke to Italian TV immediately after the game and suggested the issue wasn’t his tactics but rather his side losing their individual battles however would hint at similar problems in eight days time.
5. A semi-final record awaits?
Roma have to come out and attack in the second leg. That’s only going to leave gaps (more gaps) for them to exploit in Rome next week.
Eintracht Frankfurt hold the record for the biggest win in a semi-final in the European Cup, having seen off Rangers 12-4 in 1959-60.
While that may not be attainable, Bayern’s Champions League record – the 7-0 aggregate thumping of Barcelona in 2012-13 – certainly is.
If Roma defend like tonight, then there’s every chance. Likewise, if Liverpool aren’t completely ‘at it’ – like in the last 15 minutes.
Either way, expect another goal glut.
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