Liverpool v Roma: Bruce Wobbelaar, penalty corners and spot-kick drama

Francesco Totti in action for Roma against Liverpool in 2001
Francesco Totti in action for Roma against Liverpool in 2001

In their many forays into the latter stages of European competition, Rome has been fertile ground for Liverpool. The Reds’ first ever triumph in the European Cup came at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, though their opponents were German as opposed to Italian that day in May 1977.

Liverpool beat Borussia Monchengladbach 3-1 to the marbled backdrop of the Eternal City, securing the first of five victories in Europe’s most prestigious tournament. The result prompted manager Bob Paisley – a veteran of the Second World War and the Italian Campaign – to say: “This is the second time I’ve beaten the Germans here. The first time was in 1944.”

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The next time Liverpool were in Rome and on the hunt for silverware, they faced a side with a considerably larger local fanbase. In the 1984 European Cup final – the Reds’ fourth success in the tournament showpiece in only eight seasons – a side featuring club icons like Bruce Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish only narrowly defeated Roma.

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Joe Fagan’s side needed extra time and penalties to overcome the Giallorossi, this after a snatched opener from Phil Neal was cancelled out by a stunning header from Roma legend Roberto Pruzzo. Roma came agonisingly close to winning on spot kicks after Steve Nicol missed his opener and Agostino Di Bartolomei scored theirs, but wayward efforts from Bruno Conti and Francesco Graziani put off by Grobbelaar’s famous wobbly knees – handed an advantage to the Reds.

Alan Kennedy stepped up for the decisive penalty and lashed home past Giallorossi goalkeeper Franco Tancredi, finally sealing the win and leaving Liverpool and Roma fans with respective feelings of euphoria and hollow regret.

Echoes of history

With Liverpool now set to face Roma in the Champions League semi-finals, supporters of both clubs can look to the history books for precedent. Their head-to-head record makes better reading for Merseysiders than it does for Romans, given that Liverpool have won three, drawn one and lost one of their five competitive games against their Italian opponents.

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Following the grand finale of the European Cup in 1984, the two sides didn’t meet again in Europe until 2001. That was in the UEFA Cup – which Liverpool would again go on to win – and in a tie which was to prove seriously controversial as far as Roma fans were concerned.

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As the glories of the eighties faded further and further into the rearview mirror, Liverpool were still capable of performing in the knockout competitions come the turn of the millennium. Come the end of the 2000/01 season under Gerard Houllier, they would have their hands on an unusual treble in the form of the League, FA and UEFA Cup.

Before they could progress to the UEFA Cup final the Reds first had to slug it out with Fabio Capello’s Roma, among others. They met the Giallorossi in the Fourth Round, winning the first leg with relative ease through two unanswered goals from Michael Owen.

Michael Owen was the hero for Liverpool at the Stadio Olimpico
Michael Owen was the hero for Liverpool at the Stadio Olimpico

The penalty that never was

In the second leg at Anfield, Liverpool were given a much tougher test by their Serie A adversaries. The visitors went ahead through a long-range goal from midfielder Gianni Guigou in the 70th minute, leaving Houllier’s side to cling on for grim death from there.

Only a few minutes after Guigou’s strike, referee Jose Garcia-Aranda appeared to signal for a Roma penalty after a handball shout against Markus Babbel. He then looked to have changed his mind abruptly, signalling for a corner instead.

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Naturally, the Roma players closest to the incident were left absolutely livid at this seeming volte-face. Four were booked in the aftermath having surrounded and berated the ref, while Damiano Tommasi was sent off five minutes later for taking his frustrations out on Robbie Fowler.

“Of course it was a penalty,” Capello said afterwards. “The referee pointed to the penalty spot twice. But Gabriel Batistuta hadn’t seen the decision and ran to the corner flag to take what he thought was a corner.

Roma players argue with Jose Garcia-Aranda after his phantom penalty call
Roma players argue with Jose Garcia-Aranda after his phantom penalty call

“But because of that it looked like the referee changed his mind. But you can’t just change your mind like that.”

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In the end, the penalty that never was proved to be decisive. Liverpool edged past Roma by a one-goal margin, going on to beat Porto in the quarters, Barcelona in the semis and Alaves in a thrilling final which ended 5-4 after extra time and was won by a golden own goal from Delfi Geli.


The rematch

While many Roma fans still remember that controversial penalty call, there wasn’t much to complain about when they met Liverpool in the second group stage of the Champions League the following season. In the last of their five competitive fixtures to date, a goalless draw at the Stadio Olimpico was followed by a 2-0 win for Liverpool at Anfield decided by a spot kick from Jari Litmanen and a trademark header from Emile Heskey.

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If history is on Liverpool’s side when it comes to their meetings with Roma, there is plenty of motivation for the Giallorossi to upset their European rivals. There’s a place in the Champions League final, of course, but there’s also an opportunity to avenge the defeats – and contentious penalty shouts – which have been passed down as fables through generations of Roma fans and survive in club folklore as vestiges of the past.

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