A three-goal lead has never felt like a particularly dangerous advantage – not until AS Roma defied history and the football gods in April 2018.
I Giallorossi had lost 4-1 in Barcelona, but turned the Champions League quarter-final on its head in Rome, beating the Catalan giants 3-0 to set up a mouthwatering semi-final against Liverpool.
In fairness, it appeared as though Roma’s luck had run out in the first leg at Anfield, as they found themselves 5-0 down after 68 minutes. Not exactly what Eusebio Di Francesco and his players had in mind. But two late goals from Edin Dzeko and Diego Perotti narrowed Liverpool’s lead to just three goals – that magic number, once again.
Surely, the Reds wouldn’t allow the Italian giants to mount an even bigger shock comeback to reach the Champions League final…right?
The atmosphere was electric at Stadio Olimpico under the European lights on 2 May 2018, as the supporters made their feelings known to their warriors on the pitch: We may not have believed it was possible against Barça, but we certainly believe now.
Liverpool knew they had to come out and immediately extinguish any hopes of a comeback, kill the raucous home crowd, and set about putting the game beyond the Giallorossi. A misplaced pass on eight minutes was swarmed upon by the Reds, and Roberto Firmino played Sadio Mane in on goal, who made no mistake. Clinical, and at his brilliant best.
6-2 on aggregate, and Jurgen Klopp’s men were doing a professional job on the plucky Italians. Seven minutes later, and the professionalism was replaced by a circus act. A cross from the right was headed back across goal by Stephan El Shaarawy, but Dejan Lovren was well positioned to boot the ball clear.
Unfortunately for the Croatian defender, he pummelled his clearance directly into the face of James Milner, and the ball cannoned back towards goal and beyond Loris Karius. A calamity, and a few doubts began to creep in.
Mane should have restored Liverpool’s lead on the night after 24 minutes, but then-Roma man Alisson Becker was just about able to snake out a boot and turn his low shot around the post for a corner. That reprieve for the hosts was short-lived, however, as they failed to deal with a corner into the box, and Georginio Wijnaldum was on hand to nod the ball home from close range and make the score 7-3 on aggregate.
Surely, that was job done, and Liverpool could enjoy a relaxed final 65 minutes?
In truth, the next 20 minutes at least went to plan. El Shaarawy set alarm bells ringing with a deflected strike which rattled the post, and the Italian winger then took an exaggerated tumble in the box, but the referee was having none of it.
The Reds went in ahead at half-time, 45 minutes away from a famous Champions League final.
This Roma side was not one to give up easily, and Liverpool’s evening was far from over. I Giallorossi caused a huge early scare when Dzeko rounded Karius, and the goalkeeper clumsily brought him down for a penalty.
Liverpool were saved by the assistant’s flag however, who deemed the Bosnian to be offside in the build-up to the foul. A controversial one and a lucky escape, so take that warning shot, and wake up, lads.
Or, let him score three minutes later. El Shaarawy forced a save from Karius, but he could only palm the ball into the path of Dzeko, who did the rest. 52 minutes gone, and game on?
Klopp’s men were under pressure, and very much embodied an under-supported gladiator, surrounded by a pack of lions in the Coliseum, with a hungry crowd baying for blood. Cengiz Under forced Karius into a superb reaction save from close range on the hour mark, and two minutes later, Trent Alexander-Arnold had to perform his own *ahem* goalkeeping heroics.
El Shaarawy’s close range strike was very much goal-bound, but the right-back inadvertently blocked the ball with his right hand and sent it over the crossbar. It somehow went unnoticed by the players and officials on the pitch, but he wouldn’t have been so fortunate in a modern VAR-plagued world.
Firmino almost killed off Roma for a third time on the night, but Alisson was up to the task. No wonder they paid the big bucks to sign him in the following summer. The Reds stemmed the flow of I Giallorossi’s relentless attacks for a huge chunk of the second half, and approaching the final five minutes, the game appeared to be won.
However, Liverpool didn’t factor in the devastating right boot of Radja Nainggolan. The all-action midfielder rifled an unstoppable bullet into the bottom corner from 25 yards on 85 minutes, and then blasted home a controversial stoppage-time penalty to add some drama to the final seconds.
It was never going to be enough for the hosts, though, and Liverpool progressed from a bonkers night in Rome with a 4-2 defeat, but a 7-6 victory on aggregate. It was an incredible evening of football, and one Reds all over the world should still savour.
Unfortunately, the players failed to fulfil their destiny that year, losing 3-1 to Real Madrid in the Champions League final. With Alisson behind them the next season however, their time would eventually come.