Friend to foe: Salah puts old team to the sword in Roma thrashing
Clive Brunskill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The smiles before kick-off were wide and sincere. Those Roma players who played with Mohamed Salah over the past two seasons looked genuinely happy to see him. They had done nothing but speak fondly over the days leading up to their Champions League semi-final against Liverpool. "Momo is an extraordinary guy," said Kostas Manolas. "A good person ... I like him."

Of course, back then they also still believed that they might know how to beat him. "He's very fast. But so am I," added Manolas with a grin. "Look, if we stopped Messi’s Barcelona we can stop Salah's Liverpool. I'm not saying it will be easy, but we're ready."

It turns out, they really weren't. Manager Eusebio Di Francesco opted to reprise the three-man defence that had served him so well in the quarter-final second leg against Barcelona. It was a system he had never used before at Roma, and it caught the Catalans thoroughly off guard.

More than that, it counteracted what Barcelona does best. With the dynamism of Alessandro Florenzi and Aleksandar Kolarov occupying Sergi Roberto and Andres Iniesta out wide, Roma's muscular trio of Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, and Daniele De Rossi were free to smother Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic in the middle, cutting out the supply lines to Leo Messi and Luis Suarez up front.

Liverpool, though, is not Barcelona. Where the La Liga leaders are happiest hoarding possession, and Messi at his most intimidating when he has the ball at his feet, the Reds are a team that thrives on the lightning strike.

Salah's pace is hardly a secret to Roma, and it would not have taken a lengthy session of video analysis to understand that Sadio Mane offers more of the same. And yet, Eusebio Di Francesco ordered his defensive line to push up high, as it had against Barcelona, squeezing down the space between itself and the midfield.

For the briefest of windows in the first half, it seemed to be working, Roma dominating possession and almost snatching the lead when Kolarov let fly with a piledriver that Loris Karius just barely pushed onto the bar.

Even so, the danger was always apparent. Salah and Firmino had carved out half-chances before the game was even five minutes old, but it was Mane who first went clean through - blazing beyond Federico Fazio and sprinting half the length of the pitch before blazing over. He was in again moments later, but fluffed his lines for a second time.

Given how readily Liverpool was picking out the spaces behind the Roma backline, it felt ironic that the opener should come from a very different type of chance, Salah curling the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box with a full complement of defenders in front of him. Even here though, the Giallorossi's failure to close down or anticipate him cutting onto his left was surprising.

By half-time, it was 2-0, Salah running onto a Firmino pass and finishing coolly. The Egyptian refused to celebrate, just as he had on the first, out of respect and affection for his old team. He did not stop eviscerating them, though, going on to set up further strikes for Mane and Firmino in the second half. The only Liverpool goal that he was not directly involved in was the fifth.

A late Roma rally reduced the arrears to 5-2. Having recovered from a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona, the Giallorossi might yet feel entitled to believe that this tie can be salvaged. But this was a very different first leg to the one at the Camp Nou - where Roma actually played well, only for Manolas and De Rossi to score own goals as every single break went against it.

It is true that the Italians are yet to concede a goal at home in this year's competition, but Di Francesco will need to drastically reimagine his tactics if that record is to survive Liverpool's visit. To deploy such a high line at Anfield was desperately naive. Even more damning was his absolute failure to adjust as his team began to unravel.

To focus solely on Roma's failings, though, feels churlish. Its tactical mistakes played into Salah's hands, but not every player would have exploited them so ruthlessly. These were his 42nd and 43rd goals of an astonishing season. His 10 in the Champions League represent a Liverpool club record for any player in a single season of European competition.

At the weekend, he was named as the Player of the Year in English football by the Professional Footballers' Association. How much more does he need to do, now, to be considered as a serious candidate to end Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s decade of Ballon d'Or dominance?

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Friend to foe: Salah puts old team to the sword in Roma thrashing
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