Roma’s unlikely lads lead Italian job
Rome: With his arms held out wide and his mouth gaping open, Kostas Manolas started running and yelling uncontrollably. Then he patted his chest and was mobbed by his Roma teammates.
Manolas, a centre-back known more for his defensive skills then his attacking abilities, had just scored one of the most memorable goals in Roma’s history.
His header from a corner in the 82nd minute Tuesday put Roma into the Champions League semi-finals and knocked out five-time champions Barcelona following one of the most extraordinary comebacks the competition has ever seen.
Roma won 3-0 to overturn a three-goal deficit and advance on away goals, having entered the game as massive underdogs after losing the first leg of their quarter-final 4-1 against a Lionel Messi-led team that was one of the big favourites to win the competition.
“I don’t care about becoming part of Roma’s history. I’m just happy that the squad has reached the Champions League semi-finals by beating a great team like Barcelona,” Manolas said. “In the first leg they denied us two penalties but tonight we showed that Roma can play with and beat anyone.”
The atmosphere inside the Stadio Olimpico was deafening as Roma unexpectedly dominated.
Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco acknowledged before the match that his team needed a “miracle” to advance, and they got the start they needed when Edin Dzeko controlled an over-the-top pass between two defenders after six minutes and poked in his sixth goal in this season’s competition.
Then near the hour mark, Dzeko earned a penalty that Daniele De Rossi converted to set the stage for Manolas’ late header.
“It is for moments like this that it is so beautiful to live for these colours,” recently retired Roma captain Francesco Totti tweeted.
Messi and fellow Barcelona forward Luis Suarez hardly threatened as Roma dominated possession for long stretches and stifled the Catalan club with high pressure.
Roma capitalised on their aerial threat through Dzeko and Patrik Schick and their stifling defence forced Barcelona into a series of uncharacteristic misplaced passes.
“They showed attitude and for whatever reason we didn’t know how to respond, or to make chances,” Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets said. “For that reason they were better in all aspects tonight.”
It’s the first time that Roma have reached the last four since they lost the 1984 final to Liverpool on penalties in their own stadium — and it’s the third straight year that Barcelona have been eliminated at this stage.
“It’s a possibility that this might be my last game in the Champions League, but right now this is hard for all the team, all of us,” Barcelona captain Andrea Iniesta said after setting a record with his 22nd match in the quarter-finals. “We so wanted to win this tournament but we’ve failed to do so again.
“It’s really tough. It seems untrue. Very hard to accept. With the advantage we had we went out because we really did things badly. The Champions League punishes you for that.”
Only two clubs had previously overturned at least a three-goal first-leg deficit in the Champions League — Deportivo La Coruna beat AC Milan 4-0 after losing the opening leg 4-1 in the 2004 quarter-finals and Barcelona routed Paris Saint-Germain 6-1 after losing the first game 4-0 in last season’s round of 16.
“Well when you lose a match like this you think about everything that went wrong. You analyse things,” Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde said through a translator when asked if would take the blame for the loss. “We had a great opportunity and we didn’t seize it.”
Roma captain De Rossi set up Dzeko’s goal with a straight ball and the Bosnian striker muscled off defenders to shoot past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen with his left foot.
Suarez was so frustrated at times for not receiving enough balls that he slammed both hands on the pitch on one occasion.
Dzeko was at it again after the break with a show of brute force, shrugging off Gerard Pique and Umtiti to approach the goal. Pique then grabbed Dzeko’s left arm and tugged the striker to the ground.
The referee didn’t immediately point to the spot but then showed a yellow to Pique and awarded the penalty.
De Rossi confidently struck the spot kick inside the right post and even though Ter Stegen leapt in the right direction the goalkeeper had no chance.
Ter Stegen was again helpless when Manolas headed inside the far post.
Valverde waited until the final 10 minutes to use all three of his substitutions.
“We had enough experience on the pitch to solve things,” the manager said, before adding: “I thought.”