LIVERPOOL, England — Where almost everyone else had failed, perhaps Mohamed Salah’s old friends at A.S. Roma might be able to succeed. After all, Roma’s defenders spent two seasons playing and training alongside Salah, the Liverpool striker.
They would know his tics and his tells, his flaws and his foibles. His form this season might have brought him 41 goals before Tuesday evening’s match at Anfield, and convinced his peers to vote him player of the year, but Roma had the advantage of prior warning. Familiarity would — might — breed confidence.
Where Salah is concerned, though, forewarned is not forearmed. Roma were just as powerless as all of Salah’s other victims this season. The fact that he was meeting his former employer on the most exalted of stages — a Champions League semifinal — did not daunt or diminish him.
Salah gave Liverpool the lead with an artful, curling shot from the edge of the box. He doubled it soon after, one of those characteristic Liverpool surges, with a delicate lob. And then, as a victory threatened to become a rout, he created two more, one for Sadio Mané, one for Roberto Firmino. He was not on the field for Liverpool’s fifth goal, a header from Firmino, but by that stage, he had done his damage. He has 43 goals for the campaign now. He has at least four more games to add to his tally.
Liverpool will know that qualifier should be redundant. Jürgen Klopp’s team should be able to travel to Rome for the return game next week confident that only a miracle would deny it a place in the Champions League final in Kiev on May 26. There should be five more games in this thrilling team’s season.
That Liverpool’s place in Ukraine remains to some degree uncertain is, entirely, its own fault. Its lead should have been more than five: Mané had missed two glorious chances before Salah gave Liverpool the lead; Dejan Lovren struck the bar with a header; Georginio Wijnaldum miskicked with just Alisson to beat. Six or seven was hardly unimaginable.
Liverpool’s profligacy, though, allowed a touch of drama to creep in to the tie. When Edin Dzeko scored in the 81st minute, Roma’s celebrations were muted: even a team that had recovered a three-goal deficit to beat Barcelona in the quarterfinals seemed to believe it had left itself too much to do.
When James Milner was penalized for handling a shot from Radja Nainggolan — Roma’s best player on the night — and Diego Perotti converted the resulting penalty kick, on the other hand, there was no shortage of jubilation. Roma had been on the brink of humiliation, a record defeat in the first leg of a Champions League semifinal. Now, there is a glimmer of hope. Salah, on familiar territory, still has work to do.