Liverpool's drama at both ends should lead to fun Champions League final
It was not as straightforward as it ought to have been but the only thing that matters to Liverpool's players and supporters today is that they are in the Champions League Final for the first time in 11 years.
It's been quite the journey for Jurgen Klopp's side, for whom actually getting into the tournament in the first place was the most difficult part. The Reds limped over the line in fourth spot last season and needed to beat Middlesbrough on the final day to secure a place in the qualifiers.
Hoffenheim were taken care of with plenty to spare, but teams that have to go through the qualifying rounds tend not to go all the way to the final. (It's worth noting that Liverpool themselves won the competition in 2005 after coming through the qualifiers). Few could have imagined back in August that we'd be here now, with the Reds preparing to face the holders Real Madrid in a repeat of the 1981 final, which Liverpool won in Paris.
They were outsiders when the competition got under way but what Liverpool have done is no fluke. Despite late wobbles in both semifinal legs against Roma, overall it has been a convincing run to the final and Klopp's great entertainers have broken a number of records along the way.
Most of those relate to various feats of goalscoring, both individually and collectively. The two goals scored in Rome saw them set the high mark for most goals (46) in a European campaign. Twenty-nine of those have come from the front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, which makes them the highest-scoring trio in a Champions League campaign, beating the previous high of 28 set by Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, who of course Liverpool will face in the final.
The Reds won't be earning too many plaudits for their defensive play, however, especially after conceding six goals over the two legs against Roma. That's Liverpool, though: goals at both ends. No lead is ever truly safe and supporters can never completely relax. This tie alone proved that beyond all doubt: having led 5-0 at one stage in the first-leg, Liverpool somehow ended up going through by just a single goal despite also scoring twice in the away leg. It makes for compulsive viewing but it's not good for the nerves.
Despite the defeat, Liverpool played quite well for long spells in the Stadio Olimpico and had put themselves in a commanding position thanks to first-half goals from Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum either side of an unfortunate own goal from James Milner. As has happened far too often in recent weeks, though, Liverpool looked vulnerable in the closing stages and late goals were conceded. Perhaps they lost concentration due to their commanding lead and the fact that Roma appeared to have accepted their fate until Radja Nainggolan's rasping late drive gave them a flicker of hope once again.
In fairness, although the 7-6 aggregate scoreline makes it look very close, Liverpool were never in any serious danger because of how late Roma's last two goals came. Indeed, their fourth goal came with virtually the last kick of the game, so there was never going to be any time for them to chase an equaliser.
Yet with a 7-3 lead and just one half to play, it almost beggars belief that Liverpool's players and supporters were desperately waiting for the final whistle. Yes, the late penalty awarded to Roma was a terrible decision but the Italian side had earlier been denied the clearest of spot-kicks when Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed to block a goal-bound shot with his hand.
Had a penalty been awarded there, the young full-back would also have been looking at a red card that would have ruled him out of the final -- assuming of course that Liverpool had held on to get there. They also got lucky when Loris Karius brought down Edin Dzeko in the penalty area but was rescued by an incorrect offside call by the linesman. Again, that could easily have also been a red card as well as a penalty.
Roma were incensed at some of the decisions but let's not forget that the Italians had also been awarded a farcical penalty in the first leg, while Liverpool also had two strong penalty claims of their own waved away in the first half in Rome. While criticism of the officials is warranted, both sides suffered.
Roma did themselves credit with their performance in the second leg and salvaged some pride, but Liverpool were stronger over the two games and should go into the final with great confidence. They do have some things to clean up though, at both ends of the pitch. They wasted countless opportunities on the break to grab the third goal that would have extinguished even the faintest of Roma hopes. Salah and Firmino especially were uncharacteristically wasteful, while Klopp was even dismissive of post-match praise for the impressive Mane by stating that he too could have done much better with counter-attacking opportunities.
At the other end, the back four were not directly responsible for four goals being conceded (one was a fluke, another a shot from distance and there was also a harsh penalty) but they did drop too deep just as they did in the previous round at Manchester City. That cannot happen in the final because it leaves the midfield three with too much space to cover. For Liverpool to be at their best, they need to be compact and defend high, not deep and stretched out in the way they were in Rome.
These things certainly need addressing ahead of the final but Madrid have issues of their own and they will be wary of the threat posed by Liverpool. Ultimately, the game could be a classic. When Liverpool are involved, finals often are.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.