Champions League: Liverpool need to be wary of momentum against Roma despite three-goal advantage

On Wednesday, Liverpool need to stop Roma from scoring three goals. Or score a few of their own to bury the contest. Opting for the latter will certainly be their safest bet.

Akarsh Sharma May 02, 2018 11:52:11 IST
Champions League: Liverpool need to be wary of momentum against Roma despite three-goal advantage

Modern-day football has become all about controlling the swings in momentum, which are becoming harder to predict or explain.

Nobody, for instance, could have foreseen Manchester United’s second-half comeback at the Etihad Stadium after the incredibly one-sided first forty-five. Nor could anyone have imagined Juventus’ remarkable recovery in Madrid, which eventually went in vain. Or even, Roma’s astonishing comeback to knock Barcelona, a side unbeaten domestically, out of the Champions League.

Champions League Liverpool need to be wary of momentum against Roma despite threegoal advantage

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp speaks to players during a training session. Reuters

Momentum is a psychological experience. You can’t touch it, you can’t smell it or even see it. You can’t measure it either, but you can certainly feel it. Like Liverpool did in the latter stages of the first leg at Anfield last week, when a ‘dead’ Champions League semi-final against Roma came to life in the last 10 minutes for no apparent reason.

At 5-0 up, Liverpool were cruising to the biggest semi-final win in Champions League history. The margin could only have been wider. Tickets to the final in Kiev were all but confirmed, before two late goals by the visitors gave the Italian team hope heading into the second leg in Rome.

Hope is all you need in football today, that slight glimmer of optimism which lifts a team’s collective spirits while planting the seeds of doubt in the collective heads of its opposition. It takes one moment to change the tide.

The substitution of Mohamed Salah, who had ripped Roma to shreds all night, with 15 minutes left on the clock was one such moment. It triggered a response from Roma. With the Reds’ main man off the field, the momentum shifted and the visitors not only scored twice, but were far likelier to score again if there was any more time left.

The home fans were grateful for the final whistle, while the away fans were boisterous. It was a surreal end to the contest. Never again in football are you likely to see a set of home fans so subdued following a 5-2 result but that’s the power of ‘momentum’.

At 5-2, not only are Roma in a better position heading into the home leg than they were against Barcelona (having scored one away goal more), but even Liverpool are worse off than they were against Manchester City (having conceded two away goals). All this is remarkable when you consider how brutally Roma had been dispatched at Anfield until the Italians scored.

It was a simple football lesson for manager Jurgen Klopp and his Liverpool side: do not let go of the ascendancy and be unassuming at all times. It is a lesson the team has often forgotten under Klopp’s management, which boosts Roma’s chances in the second leg.

Klopp’s Liverpool have developed a knack of conceding three goals in quick succession. In January, the Reds bowed out of the FA Cup after allowing West Brom —Alan Pardew’s West Brom, no less! — to score three first-half goals at Anfield in the space of 41 minutes. At the Emirates Stadium a month prior to that, Liverpool had conceded three goals in six minutes to let a seemingly down-and-out Arsenal turn around a 0-2 half-time deficit.

In Seville in November, the home team scored three times in the second half, including a stoppage-time goal to earn a point, after Liverpool had destroyed Sevilla to lead 3-0 at the interval.

Going back to last season, Klopp’s first full season in charge of the club, there was the infamous implosion at newly-promoted Bournemouth: three goals in the last 18 minutes to convert a 3-1 advantage into a 3-4 defeat — the kind of horror Reds fans have become used to anticipating. And finally, there was the 25-minute collapse versus Sevilla, again, which saw three goals conceded after a confident first half in the Europa League final.

Sure, Liverpool have improved defensively by leaps and bounds since Klopp first took charge and especially with the arrival of centre-back Virgil Van Dijk in January this year. But this Liverpool side isn’t meant for soaking up pressure. It’s embedded in the psyche.

At the Etihad in the return leg of the quarter-final, it seemed like only a matter of time before Man City would score a second goal after scoring an early first. In fact, Pep Guardiola’s team did manage to score again before half-time, only for it to be incorrectly ruled out for offside. It was a lucky escape for Klopp’s men who ditched their passive stance in the second half and wrested back control to finally score the all-important away goal.

There is little scope for half-measures in modern football. Even less so with a Reds team which loves to be on the offensive and suffocate opponents with the high-energy pressing. Ask them to sit back and you’re inviting trouble.

It’s not just Liverpool’s case, either. Eminent football journalist Jonathan Wilson posed a pertinent question in The Guardian: can any top club actually defend? In the debacle of Rome, Barcelona, even with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in the line-up, chose to play with caution — and paid the price. At the Bernabeu, against Juventus, Real Madrid didn’t approach the game with their usual endeavor — and nearly paid the price. Last year, it was Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) who had made global headlines for the wrong reasons at the Camp Nou. This, of course, is also the season when Dortmund went 4-0 up inside 25 minutes against Schalke, only to see the match end at 4-4.

Wilson argues that top clubs simply aren’t tested enough in their domestic competitions, so when it comes to actually defending against a top side, they are all found wanting. It’s an argument that holds well if you consider all the champions or champions-elect from the top five leagues this season: Manchester City, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and PSG.

On Wednesday, Liverpool need to stop Roma from scoring three goals. Or score a few of their own to bury the contest. Opting for the latter will certainly be their safest bet.

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