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Two early goals ensured Liverpool’s place in the 2018 Champions League final as they prevailed 7-6 on aggregate despite losing 4-2 in Rome. It was a less spectacular Liverpool performance than the one produced at Anfield last week and their first loss in the competition this season, but the fans won’t care: Liverpool are through to the final.
Jurgen Klopp’s team were a little lacklustre after Georginio Wijnaldum scored their second, allowing Roma to build up a head of steam and force a somewhat nervy last five minutes after Radja Nainggolan’s 25-yarder. But the Belgian’s second (from a controversial penalty decision) came too late, and the whistle blew soon after, sparking jubilant scenes among the travelling Liverpool fans.
Here are five things we learned:
Roma switch to 4-3-3 but flawed tactics remain
The Italians gambled on a five-at-the-back formation at Anfield, hoping the wing-backs would push back Liverpool’s wingers, allowing the three centre-halves to play high up the pitch. It didn’t work. Wing-backs Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov looked lost and were often caught out of position, leaving Juan Jesus, Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas hopelessly exposed.
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There were no surprises, then, that a more traditional 4-3-3 was employed for the second leg. Eusebio Di Francesco retained the tactics that proved themselves flawed last week, however, and it cost Roma. The midfield three pushed too far forward, the defensive unit looked uncertain of their positioning as a result and an individual error would always exploit their vulnerabilities.
It came early on, Radja Nainggolan’s errant pass allowing Liverpool to break and Sadio Mane was able to slot home the opener, handicapping Roma’s bid for the final before it even really began.
Andrew Robertson continues to shine
The young Scottish left-back has proved a shrewd purchase by Liverpool, returning an excellent debut season on Merseyside. Robertson was a beacon of hope in a dire Hull side last season, and in a much more settled environment has been one of the best full-backs in the Premier League this.
Robertson was again strong in Rome. The 24-year old uses his pace well to drive forward, and his defensive positioning and solidity has come on leaps and bounds. Capable of delivering dangerous balls into the box, he has gained consistency in that regard and, crucially, his decision making is generally of good quality. The latter trait is one possessed by surprisingly few in Robertson’s position.
Liverpool’s inexperience may cost them in final…
Real Madrid did not produce a vintage performance in either leg against Bayern Munich, but are rightly regarded as favourites for the final in Kiev. They showed in that battling performance why they are back-to-back defending champions: an ability to win when playing badly.
It is their experience and European nous that allows them to win games of that nature, and if the final is a scrappy affair (as one suspects it may be), Zinedine Zidane’s men will have a distinct advantage. Liverpool do not possess the experienced continental campaigners of their opponents, and it could be a defining factor in the final.
…whilst their continued defensive fragilities will worry Klopp
There is no doubting the impact of Virgil Van Djik in the heart of Liverpool’s defence, but the Kop faithful will worry about the rest of the group. Trent Alexander-Arnold is still developing defensively, and whereas he showed great patience against Leroy Sane in the quarter-final, he lunged in too often against Roma in both legs.
Dejan Lovren has been much improved this season (particularly alongside Van Djik) but still has an error in him; the same can be said for Loris Karius. Jordan Henderson isn’t a natural defensive midfielder, either. Real’s array of attacking will back themselves against a defence that looked porous at times against Roma.
The triumphant triumvirate give the Reds hope for final
It was a record-breaking night for Liverpool’s star front-three. Sadio Mane’s early goal was the 29th scored by either him (9), Mohamed Salah (10) or Roberto Firmino (10) in this year’s Champions League. This took them past the previous high mark of 28, by Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo set in 2013-14.
Now surely cemented as part of the discussion of the best front-threes in Europe, they give Liverpool a real chance of shocking Real Madrid in the final. And in the Egyptian Salah, they have a truly world-class player, and one who rises to the occasion – the sort of player that can win you a Champions League final.