(By Rahul Pandey)
AS Roma Vs Barcelona
In Any Given Sunday , Al Pacino as coach Tony D’Amato urges his team to “climb out of hell, one inch at a time”. Almost 19 years later Eusebio Di Francesco asked his 11 Roman gladiators to do the same up against a team that is fancied by billions all over the globe by the name of FC Barcelona. On 11 Feb 2018, the Stadio Olimpico along with its 60,000 Romans became witness ground for one of the fascinating nights in European history. All it took was a 90-minute football match.
After being humbled at Camp Nou by the Catalan giants by 4-1 last week, the Roma players had less than a week’s time for the rehabilitation of the damage that had been done to them. Everyone expected them to keep things on friendly shores and look for a respectable result, a draw maybe. They would’ve settled for the same, had it not been for one particular moment in their archives dating back to 26th Feb 2002 when they defeated a team by the same name 3-0. With a little math, they realised that it was the exact score they needed this time around to turn things in their favour. And boy didn’t they do that in some style.
They organised back their troops, made sure the turf was flooded properly with water so that the opposition are unable to do what they do best and went into the game confident enough to pull out an upset. It all started pretty quickly though, just as the crowd had begun to settle down after the Champions League Anthem. The La Liga leaders earned a 2 vs 2 opportunity with Suarez and Messi up against the two centre-halves. Not typical of their game, they give the ball away and Roma plunge forward with a counter attack and to the end of it the Bosnian Centre forward Edin Dzeko just managed to resist the challenge from Samuel Umtiti and place the ball past Ter Stegen. 6 minutes into the game, Roma were 1-0 up and only needed two more in the next 84 minutes, the tie was alive.
Barcelona’s tiki-taka was nowhere on show. It was only the third time in the season that one could sense that Barcelona was panicking. Be it Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta or even the great keeper of the ball, Sergio Busquets, no one was able to pass the ball on this turf which almost had grass over water rather than vice versa. But it wasn’t just the turf. It seemed as if they were lacking that goal poaching instinct in the final third. An instance being the two free kicks that they earned deep into the opposition territory. Lionel Messi has been on a rampage when it comes to set pieces this season. His most recent one came three days before the UCL encounter against Leganes. But to be frank it seemed as if both he and his compatriots hadn’t done their homework. 25m out of the Roma goal, you have a great chance of scoring if only you know that the Roma wall stays more in the air than on the ground. But that is just one of many things that didn’t go right for Barca. Their opponents, on the other hand, knew every single pinching points for Barca. Dzeko was becoming too hard to handle for Pique and Umtiti. If it wasn’t for Ter Stegen, the tie would’ve been settled in the first half itself. The opening finally came in the 55th minute, when Dzeko again came in hard in the box and the Spanish centre-half panicked and committed a poor foul.
In stepped Mr. Roma Daniele De Rossi, who thrashed the ball hard on goalkeeper’s left. The dream was just one step closer. The Italian darlings were one goal away from doing the unthinkable this season. And did the chances came for them. Plenty!
Be it Nainggolan, Strootman, Kolarov, Dzeko or even the defender Fazio, everyone wanted to get a goal. Just 2 goals had made a potential treble year into yet another forgettable one for Barca. Atletico, Juventus and now Roma were looking to destroy the dream of a 6th UCL title for the Catalans. On the other side of the isle, history was waiting to be made. And so in the 82nd minute as Aleksandar Kolarov delivered a left footed curling delivery from the corner, in stepped Kostas Manolas who made the faintest of the contact with his head and within a split second he knew he had done it. Roma had done it.
Being the gladiators they kept their nerves up until the final whistle and completed what will be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in modern sports. One that will be remembered in Peter Drury’s words as “beyond rationality, beyond Roman reality.”
Manchester City vs Liverpool
A week ago, when Jurgen Klopp and his men had scored 3 past Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, not a single person including the Reds’ themselves had believed that the tie was over. Given the reputation of the Blue team of Manchester, we all knew Etihad was going be different than Anfield.
The club managed to get the fans to the stadium, it was necessary, it always has been. Having scored 19 goals in 9 European games, 3 more were required in the next 90 minutes to stay alive in the race for the title. So when Gabriel Jesus finished in a beautiful yet controversial move by the EPL leaders in the 2nd minute, the Liverpool fans knew they were in for a long night.
One after another, Manchester City were pumping all the fuel that they had. It seemed as if the goals were inevitable, but while City and De Bruyne were masterful in getting the ball onto the wings, the finishing product wasn’t so impressive as Virgil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren kept the spaces off the radar. Bernardo Silva looked had two great attempts on his own from the right-hand side, both left-footed, one swerving away from the left side off the goal, the other hitting the crossbar. Liverpool only had one moment in the first half, when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain combined with Salah on the right hand side, bluffed past Edersen but with only an inch of space to pull the trigger, blasted the ball into the crowd.
The turning event of the game came in the 42nd minute. When Leroy Sane tucked in a goal from 5 yards out and was wrongly adjudged offside. At times when the players kept their composure, the manager lost it completely as he rushed towards the ref at the halftime and was sent off to the stands for the rest of the game.
It became fro bad to worse for the hosts in the second half. The defence became so much disintegrated in a way that passing accuracy fell by 10-15%. Liverpool front three, who have been the big reason for their comeback in the second half of the season, made the City defence commit big time errors. The deadlock was finally broken by Liverpool’s Midas, Mohamed Salah in the 56th minute as he rounded off the keeper and scored an audacious chip. The final blow in the jaw was delivered by another attacking star of the trio, Roberto Firmino, who took off a misplaced pass from the left hand side and scored a perfectly placed shot away from the keeper in the bottom right hand corner of the goal.