Irrepressible Mohamed Salah fires five star Liverpool until late Roma double raises old doubts

Mohamed Salah celebrates his first goal for Liverpool against his former club Roma discreetly. Net.

Jurgen Klopp called it “all-inclusive football”, or in other words a night when Anfield witnessed the demolition of Roma followed by what they hope was not a chilling sequel, that being the start of another momentous comeback when these two clubs reconvene for the second leg next Wednesday.

This is already a remarkable Champions League semi-final and quite how Roma still have a faint chance for the second leg is hard to understand when Eusebio Di Francesco’s players mostly looked a team with the wrong tactics, against the wrong opponents on the wrong night. At five goals down they had been cut to pieces by one man in particular, the footballer who may yet turn out to be the outstanding individual in this Champions League season and many more to come.

Mohamed Salah bewitched Roma with two goals and two assists, and for the bits that even he might consider impossible, there was an away defence willing to wave the 43-goal attacker through the gaps. Others have defended Salah with their lives, because that is the only way to play against him, but his former club left him under the responsibility of the Brazilian defender Juan Jesus who by the end needed saving from himself.

By the time Salah was substituted, Liverpool had long since smelled blood and been clinical with the chances they had created - two further goals for Roberto Firmino and one for Sadio Mane, and a place in the final in Kiev on May 26 looked inevitable. Kevin Strootman approached his bench and seemed to be asking Di Francesco in bald terms what the hell his manager thought he was doing and given that Roma were trying to stop Salah with Jesus and a prayer that seemed a fair question.

Salah walked off the pitch at 75 minutes, having acknowledged his own contribution with the humility of a man who clearly felt that he had wrought more than enough pain on former friends without ostentatious goal celebrations. Perhaps he took with him the aura of Liverpool’s invincibility or perhaps Klopp’s team were always destined to tire at the end of a tie that they controlled on 75 minutes.

The ball that Radja Nainggolan clipped over the head of Dejan Lovren for Edin Dzeko to chest down and score was, Klopp said, one of those things that can happen on nights like these in spite of what he regarded as a brilliant performance from his Croatian. The penalty that referee Felix Brych awarded for James Milner’s handball was the wrong decision, Klopp said, but the substitute Diego Perotti buried his penalty with rather more confidence than those Roma players of in the 1984 final.

Klopp said that he found it hard to let his mood fly too high although that was nothing to do with Roma’s two goals, and rather more to do with the fact that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was carried off on a stretcher in the first half with what is expected to be a serious injury to his right knee. It seems not a question of whether he will be at the World Cup finals but whether he will even be back in time for next season.

A cruel blow for the young Englishman who has done so well to establish himself in Gareth Southgate’s plans, not to mention this great ending that Liverpool’s season is promising. The second leg alone is set up to be one of the classics with Roma trailing Liverpool by three goals, the same margin from which they reeled in Barcelona in the previous round. Klopp pointed out that this Liverpool team are not Barcelona, “who won it all” and was eager to emphasise that the appetite not to mess this up burns stronger than usual.

It was a commanding result but it could have been so much better after a first half which Roma started positively, clearly in a mind to score a goal and coming very close to doing so. Later their manager Di Francesco would seek to blame the lapses in the second half on his players failing “to win their duels” as if mindful that his own tactics were likely to be identified as the chief reason why they were so out of their depth.

They had the first major chance, a shot from the former Manchester City man Aleksandar Kolarov who struck a left-footed drive on 18 minutes that Loris Karius seemed to lose mid-flight and only managed to push onto his own bar – and then at last Salah took over.

Mane had three sights of goal in the first half, from which he missed the first two and then scored the third, having strayed offside in the build-up. The first two came within a minute of one another and when the second was also dispatched over the bar there was chastisement in the groan from the home fans which Klopp immediately picked up on. He turned to them and demanded they encourage the team.

At the centre of those two chances was the excellent Firmino with that magnetic touch of his and he would be key in setting up Salah’s second. In the 36th minute, Salah was inside the box on the right side again with enough space to pick his spot, striking such a good shot that goalkeeper Alisson was nowhere near it. For his second, Salah guided the ball into the path of Firmino, the Brazilian holding off Kostas Manolas and freeing his team-mate Salah to run clear and lift a shot over Alisson that bounced delicately into the Roma goal.

If the end of the first half had been decided by the brilliance of Salah then the start of the second was something much worse for Roma, the proverbial bloodbath. The third and fourth goals of the night were created by Salah, both times released down the right wing and carefully picking his pass for chances that Mane and then Firmino could not miss. Roma conceded the fifth direct from James Milner’s corner which Firmino nodded past Alisson.

Neither of the two teams who have previously scored five in a Champions League semi-final first leg in the history of this competition have failed to progress to the final. Roma’s two goals came later with Salah off the pitch, and while they changed the mood in Anfield at the final whistle, the belief seems to prevail that when Salah is on the pitch then anything is possible.

 

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