There cannot have been many better celebrations at this stadium. One glance off Kostas Manolas’s head was enough to spark scenes of utter bedlam. The Roma coaches and substitutes had all leapt off the bench to join in, it was barely possible to hear yourself think and Barcelona were stunned.
They had been reduced to such a state of desperation that Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest player, had been reduced to hacking at Aleksandar Kolarov. Luis Suárez’s main contribution was picking up a booking for timewasting and in the end Barcelona’s third consecutive exit in the quarter-finals came in the most incredible circumstances.
Roma had trailed 4-1 from the first leg, yet they were inspired by Edin Dzeko and Manolas’s header was enough to take them through on away goals and into their first European Cup semi-final since 1984.
“Mission Impossible,” was the headline in one Italian newspaper, yet the locals sought to disguise that air of pessimism by making the atmosphere as intimidating as possible and any hope Barcelona had of silencing the deafening Roman din went out of the window after six minutes.
Faith in Roma’s ability to stage an incredible turnaround was weighed down by the knowledge that only 11 sides had recovered from positions of similar peril in the competition’s 63-year history and even their most devoted followers could have been forgiven for thinking this was a foregone conclusion.
Roma had made life awkward for themselves with an eccentric effort at the Camp Nou, from the sloppiness of conceding two own-goals to the frustration of the error from Federico Fazio that allowed Barcelona to pull clear in the dying stages, and it was clear Eusebio Di Francesco’s side would require something special to pull this one out of the bag.
Yet there was no point in Roma feeling downbeat. Red smoke billowed out of the brilliantly boisterous Curva Sud, heightening the sense of occasion, and the home team’s task did not look quite as imposing once Dzeko had highlighted the frailties in Barcelona’s defence.
Alessandro Florenzi’s long pass was perfectly flighted and Dzeko, who had kept the tie alive with an artful piece of poaching in the first leg, used his strength to bustle Jordi Alba and Samuel Umtiti aside before rolling the ball past Marc-André ter Stegen.
Ernesto Valverde’s focus was defensive, which is why he favoured Sergi Roberto instead of the more offensive Paulinho but Barcelona were vulnerable against Roma’s high-octane approach in midfield, where Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman dominated. Suárez’s difficulties were encapsulated by the moment when he failed to run clear of Roma’s back three after an excellent pass from Andrés Iniesta and although Messi almost silenced the crowd with a free-kick that whistled just too high, the forward’s team-mates struggled to involve him.
Alisson Becker could not have anticipated enjoying such a quiet 45 minutes in goal for Roma. The action was happening at the other end and the damage for Barcelona would have been more severe if Patrik Schick had shown greater precision with two free headers or Dzeko had snuck another effort past Ter Stegen.
The question at the start of the second half was whether Roma would begin to tire after such a frenzied effort. It felt as though the slightest dip in intensity would prove costly, especially when Barcelona were able to gather their thoughts and exert a measure of control for the first time all evening.
The clock was Roma’s enemy. Yet the mood changed when Strootman hounded Iniesta out of possession in the 55th minute, allowing Schick to run at Umtiti. The forward tumbled and appealed in vain for a penalty, but Roma had a second wind and moments later the outstanding Dzeko was outmuscling Gerard Piqué, turning and preparing to shoot from close range. Piqué’s foul was desperate and this time Clement Turpin, the French referee, awarded a penalty that De Rossi converted to the goalkeeper’s left.
It was a cathartic moment for the Roma captain, who sent the ball into the wrong net last week. Roma continued to tear forward, Nainggolan volleying at Ter Stegen, De Rossi heading inches wide, Stephan El Shaarawy, on as a substitute, almost turning in a volley at the far post. But they would not be denied. Eight minutes were remaining when Kolarov swung in a corner from the left, Manolas darted to the near post and his flicked header finally shattered Barcelona’s resistance.