Roma hold off Leverkusen rally in another high-scoring match
Miralem Pjanic scored a late penalty kick as Roma edged out ten-man Bayer Leverkusen in another goal-hungry Champions League encounter between the teams.
In their last meeting, Roma turned a 2-0 deficit into a 4-2 lead before the Germans scored two late goals to snatch a point. And after going two goals up themselves through Mohamed Salah and Edin Dzeko, Leverkusen tied at 2-2 with goals from Admir Mehmedi and Javier Hernandez. But Bosnian talisman Pjanic converted a spot kick late on as Roma jumped into second in the group.
Roger Schmidt's side were visiting Rome for the second time this season -- the last outing, a 1-0 defeat to Lazio in the qualifiers. Schmidt made two changes from the 2-1 defeat at Wolfsburg on Saturday with Stefan Kießling and Omer Toprak returning to the fold. Roma, coached by Rudi Garcia, had to do without the inspirational Francesco Totti.
But Totti's absence was arguably a positive; Roma's quick, fast-paced game was too hot for Leverkusen to handle, especially considering their abysmal defensive organization. Roma had failed to score for the first time in 25 games at the weekend and it didn't seem to have a lasting impact as the hosts burst into an early lead. In the space of 100 seconds, former Chelsea winger Salah raced through on goal and cooly slotted the ball past Leverkusen goalie Bernd Leno.
Salah could hardly believe his luck when left-back Wendell was not goal side of his opponent -- and this continued to happen throughout the half. The Egyptian winger couldn't take advantage of his following 3-vs-2 and 2-vs-1 situations on the wing, but did turn provider for Roma's second goal.
On 26 minutes, Salah breezed past Wendell to set up Dzeko who edged past the defenders and finished confidently. The pair combined once more three minutes later, but Dzeko blazed horribly over the bar when it seemed easier to score.
At the other end of the field, Hernandez was starved of service despite looking bright and energetic. He had a half-chance on 39 minutes, speeding ahead of his marker but the Roma defender eventually recovering to make the tackle in the box.
Schmidt brought on Bellarabi at the break, a move clearly to increase the width on the park for Leverkusen. Within a minute, the German international was involved in the move where Kevin Kampl combined with Mehmedi who cut the deficit.
Leverkusen had come from behind in two of their previous four games and there was a sense of inevitability around their latest comeback in Rome. Four minutes later, Bellarabi weaved past several red shirts, played in Hernandez and the Mexican international rammed the ball home -- his seventh goal in his last five matches for the Bundesliga club.
Mehmedi was denied his second by Wojciech Szczesny, the Polish keeper saving with his knee as the Swiss striker roamed into the box from the left. Leverkusen managed to take full control of the game and were causing similar problems as Roma were in the first half. Bellarabi lasted the best part of 20 minutes; his influence was game-changing, but he suffered injury.
Without Bellarabi, Schmidt's men lost their verve. Roma developed a rhythm once more as Salah found the same performance levels as the first half to be involved in almost everything positive for the home side. Leno's reflexes kept the ball out several times with Roma keen to secure a win for Garcia who described this encounter as 'must-win.'
"The standings are very tight. When you put together Italian, German and Spanish clubs in the same group it's going to go down to the final match," Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt said.
The three points were finally decided on 78 minutes. A shot was saved by Leno, the loose ball falling kindly for Salah who was ready to tap home, if not for the blatant push from Toprak who was shown a red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity.
"We should have closed the match out earlier, in the first half when we created a lot of chances," Pjanic said. "We often have problems controlling a lead. We're not able to close matches out. But fortunately it went well today.
"We absolutely had to win and we did," Pjanic said.
It was a good risk to take from Toprak, but Pjanic is peerless from this distance and he thumped the penalty past Leno to put the Italians ahead -- as he did in the 4-4 game at the BayArena. Roma move on to five points, trailing unbeaten Barcelona, ahead of their meeting with the European champions on match day five at the Camp Nou.