Roma fight back vs. Leverkusen only to end up settling for a harmful 4-4 draw
The moment Iago Falque stroked in Roma's fourth goal on Tuesday night, the game should have been up for Bayer Leverkusen. The German side had been winning 2-0 just 19 minutes into their Champions League Group E match in Germany, thanks to Javier Hernandez bagging a fourth-minute penalty and then finishing calmly after initially shooting a one-on-one chance at Roma keeper Wojciech Szczesny. Yet they proceeded to hand the game to Rudi Garcia's side, sitting back on their lead with more than three quarters of the game to go and inviting Serie A's leading scorers to attack.
And attack Roma did; after pulling one back through captain Daniele De Rossi's scuffed finish 10 minutes later, they dominated. De Rossi bundled in his third goal in as many days from Miralem Pjanic's near-perfect free-kick seven minutes before the break, and the Bosnian gave them the lead with another astonishing dead ball strike -- his fourth of the season and fifth goal overall -- nine minutes after the interval.
Falque's goal -- a tap-in following sterling work on the left from Gervinho, who stormed past Jonathan Tah in the 73rd minute and fed the Spaniard an unmissable opportunity on the edge of the six yard box -- was supposed to be merely the icing on an incredible, gutsy comeback. With Barcelona winning 2-0 in Borisov, it seemed that the Serie A side had wrestled back control of qualification to the knockout stages.
But instead of seeing out a hard-earned three points that would have kick-started their Champions League campaign, Roma did the most predictable, most Roma thing possible, and drew 4-4. The last 15 minutes of Tuesday's clash were almost a parody of a typical Roma defensive performance, a hyper-real, augmented reality version of everything Giallorossi fans know and hate about their team. The draw could have been seen coming from back in the Italian capital.
"You can't draw a game like this. We had it in our grasp and then conceded two goals at the end," Pjanic said after the game. "Our problem is that we only react, we don't take the initiative or command from the start. We shouldn't have allowed a comeback like that. Today in contrast to the BATE game we actually played and were superior to our opponents. When 4-2 up with 10 minutes to go, you cannot concede two goals."
The draw must have been particularly gutting for Pjanic, who was a joy to watch and had a hand in all four of Roma's goals, comfortably winning his duel with Leverkusen dead-ball specialist Hakan Calhanoglu. In the end Roma might have even lost the game; Hernandez was inches away from his hat-trick in injury time. That would have been as sickening as it would have been unsurprising.
"We didn't lose and that is the only positive, but a victory would have given us such a good chance of qualifying," said Radja Nainggolan. "With the last two goals we lost the ball in a stupid way and ran risks when we shouldn't have. Perhaps we felt too confident being 4-2 up."
Confident isn't the right word. Roma have now conceded eight goals in their three Champions League group games, with six of those coming in the first half-hour. That ill discipline -- they have kept just one clean sheet this season -- means that they are bottom of Group E on just two points despite scoring seven times. What's more worrying is that the goals Roma concede are as much down to their own ineptitude as they opposition's good play, and it's hard to see any semblance of structure when they're under pressure.
Garcia tried to put a positive spin on what is a calamitous result, saying that "the attitude of the team was important" in coming back from two goals down, and that they "couldn't do anything" about Leverkusen's third, an admittedly beautiful strike from Kevin Kampl after Roma repeatedly failed to clear their lines.
But there is no positive side to this result; it is a massive missed opportunity reminiscent of the 2-2 draw at CSKA Moscow that doomed their Champions league campaign last season. Garcia has still only won three Champions League games as a coach and at the minute he seems incapable of organising a solid back line that ensures maximum rewards for his team's attacking flair.
The Frenchman needs to sort something out quick as the return fixture with Roger Schmidt's side in Rome is the proverbial last chance saloon. The Nou Camp awaits on Matchday five, so anything but a win against Leverkusen at the Stadio Olimpico and Roma can more or less kiss the round of 16 goodbye.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley