- Roma trail Liverpool 5-2 from first leg at Anfield
- Italian side have already scored six times against English opposition in the group stage
- Di Francesco's side also overturned a three-goal deficit to eliminate Barcelona in the quarter-finals
Uefa Champions League semi-finals: Roma have shown they are capable of staging seismic comebacks
In the space of 13 days and 180 minutes of exhilarating football back in October, Roma put six goals past the Premier League champions. They came back from an early setback in London, 2-0 down after 37 minutes, to draw 3-3. Then, in their own Stadio Olimpico, Roma stunned Chelsea with an electric start. That match, the fourth in the Uefa Champions League group stage, finished 3-0 to the Italians.
That’s not the only promising precedent Eusebio di Francesco, Roma’s manager, will have in his mind, and put into the mind’s eye of his players, ahead of their daunting assignment against Liverpool, whom Roma trail 5-2 at the halfway stage of their European Cup semi-final. There is also their fresher achievement against the newly crowned champions of Spain. Barcelona led Roma 4-1 after the first leg of the quarter-final. Another 3-0 at the Olimpico altered the dynamic of that contest spectacularly.
In fact, if you relish a comeback, Italian football has been the place to look lately. Roma’s recovery against Barcelona apparently inspired Juventus to go to Real Madrid, lagging 3-0 from the first leg of their last-eight tie, and boldly rack up a 3-0 scoreline in their favour until, with extra time imminent, the heartbreak, and a Gigi Buffon meltdown, when Juventus conceded a very late penalty.
As for the Serie A title-race, the Old Lady has been engaged in the mother of all comebacks. In the course of two weeks, Napoli reduced the gap between first and second in the table from nine points to one. They beat leaders Juventus in Turin with a last-gasp goal and on Saturday night watched their own comeback trumped, and Juve go from 1-0 up to 2-1 down against 10-man Internazionale in a spellbinding Derby d’Italia which, astonishingly, Juventus went on to win 3-2 with goals in the 86th and 88th minutes. That seems to have broken Napoli, who lost badly at Fiorentina once they were asked to take up the chase yet again.
Talking points: Roma have momentum to beat Liverpool
All in all, Italy’s leading club teams, often caricatured as conservative and cagey, have entertained marvelously in a season when the nation’s sense of its status in the game took a historic bruise, with the national team’s failure to negotiate a World Cup qualifying play-off against Sweden. At times, Napoli have played football as fetching as any club side anywhere this season. They produced distinguished displays, albeit in defeat, against Manchester City in a tough Champions League group.
That was the first of a quartet of Anglo-Italian jousts in the leading European competition. Just as Roma bettered Chelsea, Juventus eliminated Tottenham Hotspur– and, yes, Juve had to come from behind at Wembley – to present a proud overall head-to-head for the season in contests between the best of Serie A and the Premier League, at least until Roma went to Merseyside. In matters of finance, Italy envies English football’s wealth and recruitment-muscle, but likes to think that its expertise in tactics and know-how gives it an edge.
But this has not been a dazzling season for Italian managers, who in 2016/17 won a Premier League title, a Bundesliga title and, for that matter, the Russian Premier League as well as the Serie A scudetto. A year on, Antonio Conte’s reputation for control and authority is diminished at Chelsea, Bayern Munich have replaced Carlo Ancelotti, while Massimo Carrera could not repeat his title at Spartak Moscow. And the adventure of Vincenzo Montella at Sevilla has just been terminated with the Italian being sacked, his second dismissal, following his exit from AC Milan, in the space of six months.
Di Francesco, who took over at Roma last summer, is meanwhile suspected of suffering vertigo in his first go at the sharp end of the Champions League. Praised for the positive approaches his Roma showed against Chelsea and in the comeback against Barcelona, the high defensive line he encouraged at Anfield, against the speed of Liverpool on the counter-attack, has drawn severe criticism.
He is expected to make changes to his line-up, and probably his formation, for Wednesday’s attempt at another seismic Italian comeback. He has a reputation to redeem, and beyond that, some national pride is at stake ahead of a summer when football’s biggest prize of all will be fought over in Russia with Italy left at home.