Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
AFTER being swept away by a Mohamed Salah blitzkrieg at Anfield on Tuesday night, Roma must now be cursing the football gods who seemingly always make them run into a Liverpool side inspired by an African football superstar in the UEFA Champions League.
The Italian giants ended on the receiving end of a seven-goal Anfield thriller, which Liverpool won 5-2 in an explosive UEFA Champions League semi-final, first leg showdown, in which the Egyptian star was the conductor of the Reds orchestra.
Salah, a former Roma forward, scored two goals of intoxicating beauty, including a first that was a vintage product of both precision and genius as he curled the ball into the top corner to open the Anfield floodgates, and then provided two assists for Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
His sensational first goal ensured he became the first Liverpool player to score nine goals in a single Champions League campaign and his second meant he now holds the record for the most goals by a Reds player in a single season in European competitions.
He also became the first African player to score 10 goals in a single UEFA Champions League campaign, while Liverpool became the first side in the tournament’s history to have three different players scoring, at least, eight goals each in a single campaign.
With the global focus firmly on him, after a defining season in which he was crowned by his fellow professionals as the best player in the English Premiership, the Egyptian international forward provided a show pregnant with the artistry which has turned him into a box office attraction in world football.
Salah kept devouring the spaces afforded to him down the right channel of the Liverpool attack, running at the Roma defence, and turning inside, if not to curl the special goal which gave his team the lead then to thread the ball into the path of his teammates, and was the stand-out performer of the night by a distance.
It’s ironic that when he was pulled out, Roma found a way to crept back into the game, and give themselves a glimmer of hope for a second miracle at the Stadio Olimpico, where a sensational comeback destroyed Barcelona and sent the Catalan giants spinning out of the tournament, in the last Champions League match hosted there.
That decisive second leg showdown against Liverpool is set for next Wednesday and, for Salah, it will provide him with an emotional homecoming show given that to the place which was his home for two years, prior to his arrival at Anfield, where he scored 29 goals in 65 appearances.
The Stadio Olimpico is the home of both Roma and Lazio and is one of the iconic football cathedrals in world football having hosted the 1990 FIFA World Cup final and four UEFA Champions League finals to date, including Barcelona’s victory over Manchester United in 2009.
Liverpool will also be returning to the stadium which, in 1984, provided them with the stage for their coronation as European champions, for the fourth time in seven years, during a golden period for the Anfield giants with this triumph even being made all the sweeter by the fact they had to beat Roma in their backyard.
The Reds arrived in Rome, back then, as they set to do next week, having already established their credentials as a European club football powerhouse with their success stories in 1977, 1978 and 1981 while Roma were playing in their first European Cup final which, fittingly, was being held in their fortress.
The two clubs had met in the 1973 UEFA Cup final which the Reds won 3-2 on aggregate.
But this was the real deal and after a titanic contest that ended 1-1, the battle spilled into a penalty shoot-out where the ensuring drama of the match, just like the events at Anfield on Tuesday night, were shaped by an African football superstar.
Legendary Zimbabwean goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar transformed himself into immortality that night in Rome, on May 30, 1984, with his theatrics, dubbed the ‘’spaghetti legs,’’ by the international media, during the penalty shoot-out, being credited for distracting the Italian players and leading to two misses by the Roma stars.
Bruno Conti, an established Italian international, was the first to miss after having volunteered to take Roma’s second spot-kick and Francesco ‘’Ciccio’’ Graziani also missed his kick as Grobbelaar danced on the goal-line that night.
“Going to play Roma in their own stadium was quite an experience,’’ Grobbelaar told UEFA.com ‘’When you walk out into a stadium like that, playing against the home team in a Cup final, the noise was deafening — unbelievable.
‘’You couldn’t hear yourself speak to the person next to you. It was a magical occasion with both sets of fans chanting loudly. The game went to penalties after extra time. The penalties started off badly with Stevie Nicol missing the first one. Then they scored and Joe Fagan (the Reds manager then) came up and put
his arm round me. ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘No one’s going to blame you but if they miss you’re a hero, so try to put them off.’ That stuck in my head. Neal scored, then Bruno Conti comes up so I put my hands on my knees and crossed them over and he ballooned it over. That’s when I thought to myself that this might work. Souness then put the ball down and, bang, it was 2-1. I knew where there next guy was going to put his penalty, but he made me look like a chump. Rushy then made it 3-2. Then comes Graziani marching towards goal, needing to score to equalise.
‘’I went into the net and pulled it with my teeth. I thought, ‘I’m in Rome, the national dish is spaghetti, so I’ll do spaghetti legs.’ I went right and the ball clipped the bar. I was supposed to take the fifth penalty, but it took me one-and-a-half minutes to get back to the huddle and when I got there Alan Kennedy was putting the ball down. Alan put the ball in the top-left corner when he was going for bottom right and that was it. Kennedy was jumping up and down, but we were all ecstatic — one of the most magical feelings you could ever feel in your life. We went out for dinner with our wives in a nice big villa overlooking the city. It was absolutely magical.”
Salah’s heroics have thrust Zimbabwean football legends into focus and last week FIFA also paid homage to Peter Ndlovu, after the high-flying Egyptian broke another English Premiership record.
‘’With @22mosalah having become the first African player to score 30 goals in theZimbabwean legend Peter Ndlovu! @premierleague this week, how about a throwback to the league’s first player from the continent,’’ FIFA tweeted.