A Week Of Massive Highs And Incredible Lows Left Us With Liverpool Vs. Roma, But How Did It Happen?
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Oh, Michael Oliver.
Mikey, Mikey, Michael.
Michael Oliver, with a rubbish bin for a heart.
Michael Oliver, with his Citroen Saxo haircut.
Michael Oliver, with the face of an AirFix fanatic, all glue-eyed intricacy and camo paint fumes.
Michael Oliver, with his absolutely correct refereeing decision in the biggest moment of the footballing season so far.
Michael Oliver, with the target over his head. The bullets are in the post already, Mike.
See, Michael Oliver has made a lot of people very cross. We all know what he did. He not only awarded Real Madrid a tie-saving penalty in the last minute of a match, he dismissed Gigi Buffon in the legend’s last game on the world’s biggest stage.
And he was right to do so.
This is why so many people are livid. Italian media outlets have gone into overdrive, searching far and wide for anyone who is able to offer any positive interpretation of the stone-cold penalty incident in question. Former referees, pundits and journalists have queued up to criticize Oliver and state that the penalty should not have stood. They’re all wrong.
Worryingly, such an outcry is really a distraction from the pitch-perfect performance delivered by Juventus for the first 80 minutes of its match in Madrid. Right from the first whistle, they did exactly what they needed to do.
They didn’t bluster and run themselves into the ground in the first half, a la Manchester City.
They didn’t meekly miss a hundred chances and meekly exit with a whimper, a la Sevilla.
They played like Juventus. Rigid, professional and ruthless.
They gave up possession, found the weaknesses in Madrid’s backline, proceeded to rip them open again and again and again.
They noticed Madrid’s aerial weakness following the suspension of Sergio Ramos.
They recognized that Keylor Navas holds on to a football as though it were a buttered-up and particularly excited piglet.
They recognized that Madrid’s one-paced midfield is wont to be blowing out of their rear-ends after any extended period of sprinting.
Two deep crosses, two Mario Mandzukic headers cutting in from out wide, followed by Blaise Matuidi simply running full pelt at Navas until he panicked. That was all it took to force the Italians back into the tie. By all accounts, we should be praising the Juve performance as being one for the ages. It was perfect.
The cost of such a monumental effort began to hang heavy in the final minutes of the game. Zidane was quick to make changes. One goal, he knew, would be enough to knock the wind from Juve’s sails. Massimiliano Allegri held on to all of his subs. Aside from a forced change in the first half, he gambled on making extra time and having fresh players to introduce when they could wreak the most devastation. That meant tired legs on the field in the closing stages.
It meant that, as the 80th minute ticked by, Madrid had wrested back control of the game. Juventus was holding firm but that formerly watertight defense had become riven with cracks and understandably so. They’d accumulated a worrying number of yellow cards. Madrid was getting closer and closer, desperate to close out the game in normal time.
Up to that point, Medhi Benatia had been excellent. But then, astonishingly, in the final minutes, the entire Juventus defense surrendered to a particularly powerful brain fart. Suddenly, a vast swath of space opened up in the box. In swept Lucas Vasquez. Benatia collided with him, knocking the Madrid forward to the ground.
Michael Oliver blew his whistle and the world changed.
Mount Buffon erupted. He rushed toward the referee, his signature honking voice heralding his righteous anger. He got all up in Oliver’s face and was sent off. He wasn’t the only one to act aggressively. In reality, three or four Juve players could have seen red. But it was Buffon who walked.
The rest was inevitable.
Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up, scored a scorcher of a penalty and put his team through to the next round. Anyone who believed — even for a moment — that he was going to miss must have never seen a football match. Ronaldo lives for these moments. He feeds off them, absorbing the attention of the world and converting it into penalty taking energy, unleashing his ego into the top corner. He delights in dismantling narratives and shattering dreams with admirable regularity. He was always going to score.
After the game, Buffon raged on. He accused Oliver of lacking romance, of having nothing but a garbage bin for a heart. In a moment of astonishing irony, Juventus’s president Andrea Agnelli criticized the referee selection process. Italian media went into full meltdown.
Michael Oliver emerged as the villain and has become something of a marked man. The excuses have become more and more tenuous, every viewing of the penalty incident only reinforcing the truth: It was the stonest and the coldest of stone cold penalty calls.
It’s annoying one of the best games in the recent history of the Champions League — and one of Juventus’ best performances in the competition — has been overshadowed by such a manufactured controversy. Juventus deserves praise for the way it executed its plan. They deserve plenty of criticism for how they handled themselves from the penalty onwards. Ideally, we’d all just move on.
For Juventus, its punishment will be having to navigate the next stage in its development. They spent a lot of money building a squad to win the Champions League. They bought Gonzalo Higuaín, who was invisible on the night, Miralem Pjanic, who was suspended for the first game, and many of their best players are getting old. Buffon is (supposedly) set to retire. Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini are past their best. Claudio Marchisio is ravaged by injuries. So who do they turn to now?
Paulo Dybala was meant to be the next great hope for Juventus. As good as the Argentine has been in the league, he has been a disaster in the Champions League. In last year’s final, he was at the heart of a dressing-room bust up. In the first leg against Real Madrid, he capped a poor performance with a red card. Is he reliable enough to build an entire team around? Similar investments in Federico Bernardeschi and Daniele Rugani are yet to pay dividends. A potential rebuilding project — rather than moaning about Michael Oliver — should be Juventus’ chief concern right now.
They also have the pressing matter of the scudetto. Because Napoli has been doing its best to dramatically implode and ruin its shot at the Italian league, Juventus appears to be in control of its own destiny: win the match in Turin against Napoli and win another title. But that assumes they’ll be able to get their heads straight before the game.
Right now, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. Juventus has a great deal of soul-searching to do in the coming days. They should stop moaning about Michael Oliver and move on.
But let’s be real.
Juventus was a sideshow this week. Sure, they came so close to turning around a huge deficit in the Champions League, but Roma actually did it. Their victory over Barcelona is one of the best results for an Italian team in this competition since Inter Milan won the whole thing.
It’s easy to dismiss Roma’s efforts with a line about how bad Barca was. This is a team that is unbeaten in LaLiga. A team with hundreds of millions of euros’ worth of talent sitting on the bench. A team that is built around the best player of all time. A team that had won the first leg 4-1. A team aiming to win the entire tournament. The odds were astronomically stacked against Roma.
Besides, this wasn’t necessarily a case of Barca being bad. To claim that would remove all agency from Roma. In truth, Barca played badly because Roma forced them to be bad. Roma’s quality was evident not only in its own attack, but in the way it shut down Barca’s play. It was masterful.
For this game, Eusebio di Francesco finally moved away from his beloved 4-3-3 formation. A former disciple of Zemen, Di Francesco has been wedded to this particular tactical set-up since he turned so many heads at Sassuolo. On the night, he changed it around.
And that change was a huge gamble. It meant selecting a three-man defense, one that included Juan Jesus, nominally a laughing stock of Italian football. But Jesus was excellent, smartly dogging Suarez all night and helping to ensure the Barca players got nary a sniff of the ball around the Roma box.
It also meant playing two strikers. Since moving to Rome, Edin Dzeko has been more than serviceable. He’s scored plenty of goals and led the line pretty well. But far too often, and especially this season, he’s been forced to plough a lonely furrow up top. Ever since his Wolfsburg days, Dzeko has worked best in a two.
Against Barca, he was paired up with Roma’s big signing of the summer (and potentially a massive flop) Patrik Schick. This was easily the Czech’s best game for Roma. Not necessarily because he was unplayable in his own right. But his role — stealing away the defense’s attention and creating more space for Dzeko — was a tactical masterstroke, played incredibly well by the youngster.
In stark contrast to Di Francesco’s clever setup was Ernesto Valverde’s cowardice. For nearly a decade now, Sergio Busquets has been one of the best midfielders in the world. In his role, he is unmatched. No one in the world can play the game like Busquets. But Busquets can only play one way. Sticking him in a two-man midfield is just facile. It’s arrogant. It’s naïve.
And Roma punished this naïveté. They hounded the Barca midfield, not allowing them a second to rest. There was nowhere for Busquets to play his signature short passes, no space in which he could turn. Daniele De Rossi led this fearsome press. Though he might be getting on in years and increasingly prone to a mistake, De Rossi is a club legend. On the night, he didn’t put a foot wrong. He made tackle after tackle, played pass after pass; he set up the first goal, scored the penalty for the second and put the fear of god into every Barca player on the pitch. He was incredible.
But even then, it took a late, late goal to secure the win. But the greatest credit to Roma was that it really felt like it was coming. There was a sense of belief in the stadium, an electric atmosphere that crackled into life as the confidence grew and grew. When the glancing header faded into the net, the entire Olimpico burst into unabashed glee.
The difference between the reaction to this game and the Juventus match could not have been more different. While Agnelli complained about referees, Roma fans were throwing their owner in a fountain, driving their hatchbacks up and down every street and honking their horns into the wee hours of the morning. They were partying all night.
For Roma fans, the week could not have been more perfect. First, they won their tie. Then, Juventus ruined their own progress. Then, Lazio conspired to throw away a big lead in its own European match. Everything was playing out perfectly.
They didn’t have to moan about Michael Oliver. They didn’t have to concoct ridiculous reasons as to why the world was against them. They just had to revel in the most joyous of moments.
What’s more, their upcoming schedule looks incredibly interesting. This weekend, they have the big Rome derby against Lazio. Being Roma, they will — of course — lose this. But it will take one hell of a loss to bring most Roma fans down from their massive high.
Then there’s the little matter of the next step in the Champions League.
Of the three teams left, there isn’t much Roma should be scared of facing.
Bayern Munich is currently embarking on a 2013 tribute act, touring the Jupp Heynckes show one more time before strolling off into the retirement sunset. They creek and wheeze like old rockers, even if they are technically the best team left in the tournament.
Then there’s Real Madrid. Even despite the hiding they received for much of the Juventus game, the distant rumble of hideous destiny can be heard heaving itself over the horizon. Madrid is progressing purely on Champions League muscle memory, winning because of some unshakable belief that they’re destined to lift the trophy every year for the rest of time. But eventually, the edifice has to crumble. Eventually, the curtain will be pulled back and the wizard will be revealed. Roma could well be the curtain-twitchers elect.
But on Friday, UEFA drew the other option: Liverpool vs Roma.
Right now, the English team seems simply vicious. Mohamed Salah is having the best season imaginable. The entire side seems set up to slice through opponents again and again, getting the ball to the Egyptian, who duly slots it into the net. But who better to silence Salah than the players who trained with him every single day for 18 months, who know him better than his own teammates?
Knock out football is fantastic because it is so unpredictable. Right now, Roma is the purest underdog possible. They should have been knocked out by Chelsea and Atletico in the group stages. Instead, they emerged on top. They should have crumbled against Shakhtar Donetsk. Instead, they snatched an away goal and shut up shop at home. They had no chance against Barca and, well, look what happened.
Jurgen Klopp’s men will fancy their chances. Liverpool versus Roma will be one hell of a tie. At the moment, no one could tell Roma players they don’t stand a chance. They’re only 270 minutes from lifting the Champions League trophy. If anything’s for certain, it’s that Roma will fight as hard as possible to make it through every single one of those minutes as winners. If we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that we should never count them out.