Salah? Liverpool’s key man v Roma is Mr Calm…

Date published: Tuesday 24th April 2018 7:35

‘Dzeko gave travelling Roma fans some hope by exposing Barcelona’s defensive weakness to make it 3-1 but Suarez opened the winning margin up again and Ernesto Valverde’s side are surely through to the semi-finals.’

We now know that Ernesto Valverde’s side were not surely through to the semi-finals at all, but we can cast no blame on the Mail’s Pete Jenson for believing that a 4-1 home win would be enough to beat a Roma side he described as ‘out of place in the last eight of the Champions League’. Pretty much everybody but Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco believed it was over, and this is a man who describes himself as “a little insane”.

That late Dzeko goal, which gave Roma fans ‘some hope’, in truth did rather more than that. It gave Roma the knowledge that if they could keep a clean sheet at Stadio Olimpico – and their Champions League record suggested they could – then they had a glimmer of a chance. Having exposed the Barcelona defence once, it was not a giant leap to suggest that they could do it three times.

And if we can talk about ‘defensive weakness’ when discussing a team which has conceded 19 goals in 33 La Liga games, how do we describe a Liverpool side that has conceded 37 in 35 and threw away a 2-0 lead over West Brom just a few days ago? While it is tempting to talk only of the phenomenon of Mo Salah against his old club – and we are certainly guilty of that ourselves – and the damage the pace of Liverpool can inflict on a defence featuring Aleksandar Kolarov and Federico Fazio, it is a possible clean sheet that should be coveted and hopefully cherished. At this stage and against this quality of opposition, conceding an away goal could be disastrous.

It has been ten years since Liverpool last reached this stage and – as hard as it is to believe now – they went into that Champions League semi-final similarly cast as favourites against a Chelsea side managed by Avram Grant. They had triumphed over the Blues twice in three years at the same stage with just three goals scored in four games; the addition of Fernando Torres and the subtraction of the sacked Jose Mourinho seemingly strengthened Liverpool’s hand further. This was the Liverpool of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano; they were truly a force to be feared.

Liverpool held a slim 1-0 lead going into injury time of the first leg at Anfield – a position Rafa Benitez would have relished – when John Arne Riise produced what we are duty-bound to call a calamitous own goal. Suddenly, Chelsea were favourites and Benitez’s game plan was thrown over the stand. When they exited after a chaotic second leg that suited Chelsea far more than Liverpool, Echo journalist Tony Barrett wrote that the Reds were ‘agents in their own downfall’. Nothing hurts quite so much as shooting yourself in the foot.

Before this Liverpool beat Manchester City in the quarter-finals, I wrote that ‘the pace has to be set by Liverpool, it has to be set early and it has to be set to ‘frantic’’. Liverpool painstakingly followed those instructions and emerged with a 3-0 win at Anfield, but a different approach will be required against a Roma side who happily sat deep against Barcelona. By any measure, they were unlucky to concede four goals; they are unlikely to be so unlucky again. The onus is on Liverpool to not only break them down, but keep a sixth successive clean sheet at Anfield.

And it is exactly for such scenarios that Liverpool broke their transfer record to sign Virgil van Dijk, who was the Reds’ composed leader in among the frantic against City. The full-backs have been a revelation, while Dejan Lovren and Loris Karius have rescued their battered reputations, but the calm colossus at the centre of Liverpool’s defence has provided the steady beat to their heavy metal football. If Liverpool win the Champions League, he will be a £75m bargain.

On Tuesday he faces Edin Dzeko – a striker who matches him inch for inch – for the first time. His task is to succeed where Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti failed, and refuse to give travelling Roma fans any hope at all. No pressure, Virgil, but it is pretty much all on you. And with all due respect to the Scottish League Cup, this not-inconsiderable test comes in the biggest game of your career.

Sarah Winterburn

 


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