There would be no second miracle of Rome. No club president diving into a fountain and gladly paying the fine. No further upsets in this unlikely Champions League season.
Twenty-two days after AS Roma overcame a three-goal deficit against mighty FC Barcelona at home with a late 3-0 victory that stunned the soccer world, its fairy tale ended at the behest of Liverpool’s in the semifinals on Wednesday. Roma’s 4-2 home win wasn’t quite enough to overcome a 5-2 beating on Merseyside a week ago for an enormous 7-6 aggregate score.
It’s the first time Liverpool has made it to the final since 2007. But the May 26 showdown will be the club’s eight European title game overall, where it will try to prevent Real Madrid from claiming a third straight continental crown, and a fourth in five years. If Liverpool should win, a sixth European Cup or Champions League trophy will move it into sole possession of third place all-time — an honored currently shared with Barca and Bayern Munich.
And so ended Roma’s dream run, its deepest in Europe since 1984, when it lost the final to, of course, Liverpool. Because Liverpool didn’t collapse or whither under Roma’s counterattacks. Not quite. Not until it was too late. While the Romans’ defense was improved by playing deeper, leaving less room for the Reds’ speedy strikers to race into, it couldn’t quite produce enough chances to get the five goals it would need.
Indeed, by the 26th minute, Liverpool had the two away goals to cancel out Roma’s from the first leg, seemingly cutting off any threat to its progress into the final. The late goals in the first leg had put a damper on Liverpool’s emphatic victory, powered by an unstoppable Mohamed Salah’s record-setting two-goal, two-assist night. But while Salah never really got going Wednesday, it took Roma too long to build its own momentum. The Serie A side compiled 23 shots on 57 percent possession, but few of its looks were of very high quality.
Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool in its first Champions League final since 2007. (Getty)
In truth, Liverpool was also fortunate when apparent penalties on goalkeeper Loris Karius and Trent Alexander-Arnold weren’t given.
And Liverpool goals by Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum made another Roma comeback unlikely. Nevertheless, a furious late rally got the Romans within a single goal of pulling it off again. A strange James Milner own goal and an Edin Dzeko tally just after halftime, and a late laser shot and penalty kick from Radja Nainggolan made things close. But Roma ran out of time.
Roma’s hopes were seemingly dashed within 10 minutes, as a terrible Nainggolan turnover in midfield sent Liverpool clear away on goal. Roberto Firmino led the breakaway, which was finished coolly by Mane.
After a quarter of an hour, Dejan Lovren produced a hilariously unfortunate own goal when he cleared a ball into Milner’s face. Somehow, it caromed out of Karius’ reach and into their own net.
Liverpool’s lead was restored before the half-hour mark. Dzeko headed a ball backward on a corner. Wijnaldum seized on it and nodded it past Alisson.
Liverpool was kissed by good fortune when a Stephan El Shaarawy shot was deflected off its post and Dzeko was wrongly called offside before Karius plowed through him and should have been punished with a penalty. Alexander-Arnold should have suffered the same fate when his outstretched arm deflected an El Shaarawy shot.
Dzeko made amends for his inadvertent assist to Wijnaldum in the 52nd minute when he picked up the rebound on El Shaarawy’s shot and struck it home well. It seemed unlikely then that Roma would get three more goals to force extra time.
But it kept at it, and Nainggolan, still visibly irked by his early mistake, struck a rocket off the inside of the far post from outside the box to bring Roma within two.
Then, deep in injury time, Liverpool’s substitute defender Ragnar Klavan handled a low cross near his body and gave up a fairly soft penalty — a makeup call perhaps? Nainggolan lashed the spot kick home without mercy.
But the final whistle rang out mere seconds after the play had resumed, and Liverpool had eked it out, setting up a final of European juggernauts.
The Reds’ pedigree in continental competition is enormous, with four titles from 1977 through 1984, but its appearance is another final is nevertheless a surprise. It last went on a run like this from 2005 to 2007, reaching the final twice — and winning the first in a famous comeback over AC Milan. Still, it was unlikely for Liverpool to get this far, even though it played in the Europa League final in 2016. Its endless rebuilding status made it something of a long shot for such a run, but it earned its place in dispatching Manchester City in the quarterfinals and outlasting a spirited Roma.
Real, for its part, will go for a record-extending 13th title, which would almost double second-placed Milan’s seven. And Real will again be the favorites in Kiev, after beating Bayern in the semifinals, Juventus in the quarterfinals and Paris Saint-Germain in the round-of-16.
In that context, Liverpool might be one of the easier assignments Real has had in this knockout stage. But then Liverpool has been surprising people all season.
Roma had too, of course. But its miracles simply ran out before Liverpool’s ample goals did.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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