Uefa Champions League semi-finals: Liverpool know only too well what it's like to face a team with nothing to lose
- Liverpool take on Roma at Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday defending a 5-2 first-leg lead
- Liverpool involved in arguably the greatest comeback in European Cup history in the Miracle of Istanbul in 2005
- Roma have already overcome a three-goal deficit to eliminate Barcelona in this season's competition
As Liverpool revisit the venue where they won their fourth European Cup, the fifth may have a greater pertinence. In Istanbul in 2005, just as in Rome in 1984, they prevailed on penalties with the aid of a wobbly-kneed goalkeeper’s antics in the shoot-out.
Yet that will not be relevant; not unless Roma win 5-2 on Tuesday. If history often offers Liverpool encouragement, this time it provides a warning. Roma needed a 3-0 home win against Barcelona in the quarter-finals and got one. Liverpool know from the 2005 final that three-goal fightbacks may be improbable, but they are not impossible. They mustered one.
Their alumni can illustrate the psychology of a comeback. They can testify to the fearlessness when one side has nothing to lose and the confusion when the other’s certain victory is suddenly in doubt. Rafa Benitez produced a tactical masterstroke at half time against AC Milan, replacing injured defender Steve Finnan with midfielder Dietmar Hamann and switching from 4-4-1-1 to 3-4-2-1. “We knew if we scored the first goal, we stood a chance,” the Spaniard wrote in Champions League Dreams. “If we scored first, I told the players, anything could happen.”
Anything did. “Rafa helped change our mood from defeat to defiance,” wrote Steven Gerrard in his autobiography. Liberated in a more attacking role, he duly got that first goal. “Before they caught their breath, we had to go for the jugular,” the captain added. Liverpool did. Vladimir Smicer scored a second. At 3-2, “our momentum was such that an equaliser was inevitable,” Jamie Carragher wrote in Carra. Xabi Alonso delivered it. “Their three-goal advantage had been washed out,” Carragher added. “Psychologically, we had the upper hand.” It was a six-minute demonstration of how to transform a tie.
That AC Milan side boasted experience in abundance; few seemed less likely to lose a three-goal lead. Yet if Roma’s past ought to offer them encouragement, Liverpool can take succour from their own. They beat Manchester City 3-0 in the quarter-final first leg, went to the Etihad Stadium and won 2-1. They did so despite conceding in the second minute. Their inexperienced defence weathered huge pressure in the first half. Their forwards broke away to score in the second.
That attacking intent will be crucial. Roma have not conceded in five home Champions League games, but Liverpool’s 88-goal front three can trouble anyone, let alone a side who were tactically naïve and individually fallible last week when the newly-crowned double Footballer of the Year Mohamed Salah played a pivotal part in four goals. They have the pace to prosper on the counter-attack. “We are looking to go there and win,” said right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, striking the right note.
As Roma know, Liverpool are a momentum team who can score in spurts. The concern is that they can also concede in them: two in five minutes to the Serie A side last week, two in nine to West Bromwich Albion three days earlier, two in 11 against Manchester United and against Tottenham Hotspur, two in five against Albion at Anfield, two in seven against City in the league.
Many, but not all, of those minutes of mayhem have come late in games, when Liverpool may have been exhausted by the intensity of their start. Perhaps, if they press less than usual, that will be different in the Stadio Olimpico. Yet if they need reserves of energy, they do not possess enough reserves with quality. Shorn of Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jurgen Klopp is running out of players. While Adam Lallana is back in the squad, his options, if Liverpool are hanging on, probably only consists of bringing on Ragnar Klavan and switching to three centre-backs.
Another centre-back should assume more importance. Virgil van Dijk was partly at fault for Gabriel Jesus’ early opener at the Etihad Stadium. Thereafter, however, the world’s most expensive defender was a colossus. Champions League semi-finals have tended to bring defiance from the Liverpool rearguard. “We survived because of one man – Jamie Carragher,” Gerrard wrote of the 2005 meeting with Chelsea. “I saw a man hell-bent on not letting the lead slip.”
It may be the attitude Liverpool need again, forging old-school determination with the modernist counter-attacking Klopp has implemented. The sense before the last round was that if Liverpool scored away at City, then they would progress. Now similar sentiments may be voiced. Yet a team who can specialise in the unpredictable must be wary of it. A team who overwhelm opponents with flurries of goals must ensure they are not given a taste of their own medicine. They have to avoid an inverse Istanbul.
Updated: May 1, 2018 04:04 PM