Champions League: Liverpool Ousts Roma in Loss that Doubles as a Triumph

Champions League: Liverpool Ousts Roma in Loss that Doubles as a Triumph

Slowly, reluctantly, their voices hoarse and their shoulders slumped, A.S. Roma’s fans started to lift themselves from their seats and head toward the Stadio Olimpico exits, ready to make the long, sorrowful journey back into town.

Only a minute remained of the second leg of this Champions League semifinal, sixty more seconds after three frantic, chaotic, lunatic hours of soccer over two games. Liverpool still, somehow, led by 7-5 on aggregate. Roma needed to score twice more simply to force extra time.

At last, Roma’s fans resigned themselves to the inevitable. It was over. It would be Liverpool in the Champions League final for the first time in 11 years, against Real Madrid in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 26. Roma’s time had run out.

Then Cengiz Under, a Roma substitute still fizzing with energy, burst into Liverpool’s box once more. The ball careered into the hand of Liverpool defender Ragnar Klavan. Damir Skomina, the referee, awarded a penalty. The drift stopped, and watched. Radja Nainggolan scored. There was a glimmer: One goal would do it now. On the field, Roma’s players pleaded with Skomina to add on more time, not to cut them short. In the stands, they roared.

That moment, more than any other, summed up a semifinal that veered between mesmerizing and madcap, that even Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager, called “crazy.”

This was a semifinal, after all, that was over after little more than an hour of the first leg: when Liverpool was flying, 5-0 up, sweeping into the final, an unstoppable force. And yet, somehow, it was also a contest that, with just a few seconds remaining before Skomina finally blew his whistle and confirmed Liverpool’s return to the grandest game in club soccer, hung entirely in the balance.

That says something about Roma, of course: how Eusebio Di Francesco’s team managed to salvage something from the ruins of Anfield last week, scrambling two late goals to restore some pride and ignite some hope; about how it fulfilled his demand to “send a message” with its performance in the second leg; about how it refused to yield when Sadio Mané put Liverpool ahead in the first 10 minutes here, and then again when Georginio Wijnaldum made it 2-1 25 minutes in.

This is a team that deserved the rapturous ovation it was awarded by its fans at the end, a team that produced a miracle to qualify for the semi final against Barcelona and always believed, deep down, that it was capable of repeating the trick. It was a team that earned Klopp’s sincere admiration for its courage, one that first drew level and then, when all seemed lost, rallied again, and brought Liverpool to the brink.

But more pressingly, it says something about Liverpool, too, about its drama, its compulsion to live life on the edge, its determination to crest and fall with the waves of its own emotion: the strengths that make it such a force at its best and the weaknesses that make it so vulnerable when it is not. This is a team that can win 5-2 and feel like it has been beaten, and a team that can lose 4-2 and feel like it has triumphed, all in the space of eight days.

No wonder, then, that at the end, as Roma’s fans boomed out their club anthem in pride, Liverpool’s fans twirled their scarves in sheer, disbelieving delight; no wonder that Klopp reappeared, 40 minutes after the final whistle, to celebrate again with the fans. The game itself needed some time to sink in; what Klopp and his players have done this season in Europe will require even longer.

This season might still end without a trophy, of course. Defend like this against Real Madrid and it will most certainly be Real claiming a 13th European Cup in Kiev, not Liverpool lifting its sixth. But that is the thing with Liverpool, this Liverpool: Even Real, those wily old campaigners, will not be entirely sure of what they will have to face — the team lucky to get away with a 4-2 loss, or the team that has burned through Europe all year. For the rest of us, only one thing is certain: it will be worth staying until the end to find out.

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