Minutes after the final whistle, fresh out of the Europa Conference League and sliding to a semi-final defeat that ends their hopes of playing on the continent next season, the Leicester players plodded to the corner of this thrilling arena where their 3,500 traveling supporters were housed. Kasper Schmeichel threw his goalkeeper gloves into the crowd, Jamie Vardy his shin guards and, given that they are trailing in the Premier League, 11th and out of the table with five games to go, it was difficult to Escape the feeling that Leicester’s season indeed ended here, narrowly defeated thanks to a header from Tammy Abraham.
The infuriating thing for Brendan Rodgers was that Abraham’s 27th goal of the season came from a free-kick, with England striker dominating Ricardo Pereira from a corner to score the decisive goal in that tie. In the build-up, Rodgers identified set pieces as one of Roma’s main threats and he conceded that Pereira against Abraham was an unfortunate mismatch. Leicester defender Jonny Evans has confirmed that Pereira has been appointed to mark Abraham. “Our Achilles heel was stopped and he destroyed us again in what was a very close game, so that’s clearly disappointing,” Rodgers said. “We’ve gone man-to-man, we’ve gone zonal, but it’s clearly not working consistently enough. We give away too many cheap lenses and too many times it has cost us dearly. It is clear that we lack physics in these moments.
At full time, José Mourinho beat his chest and turned to the Roma fans, pounding his fist in celebration as Feyenoord awaited the final. Accomplished job. Rodgers knew his players would be warmly welcomed and some seemed to wither in the intimidating atmosphere. Leicester went without a shot on target until the 79th minute when James Maddison fired a straight shot at Rui Patrício and substitute Kelechi Iheanacho located the same target minutes later. The Leicester players were mocked on arrival and even when away fans serenaded Claudio Ranieri, who led both clubs to mixed success, a home crowd made sure to drown out their cheers. Shortly before kick-off, the Curva Sud unfurled a giant tifo depicting the words In Britannia Cuncti Nomen Romanorum Horrebant – “Everyone in Britain dreads the name of the Romans”.
Rodgers lined up his side to attack Roma – James Justin and Harvey Barnes both started with the manager acknowledging the need for pace at both ends – but they failed to faze Roma and he moved to a back three at halftime. Six minutes after falling behind, Schmeichel was alert to make a save from a tight angle after Lorenzo Pellegrini latched onto a nice through ball and Roma headed into the tunnel on the break undisturbed . Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, a year after playing for Luton at home to Rotherham, took a chance with a coiled effort that sailed wide and soon after the big screens at either end of this huge arena showed the face of a rather happy Francesco Totti.
Daniel Amartey and Iheanacho replaced Barnes and Ademola Lookman, who had been easily chained, and Rodgers pushed Pereira and Justin to the back. Leicester restarted with noticeable vigor, Dewsbury-Hall digging in his heels to earn a free-kick, and moments later Justin surged forward down the left flank before his attempt to spot Vardy was cut off for a corner. Dewsbury-Hall sent another flashing shot shortly after the television cameras turned to Ranieri. The visibly moved Italian rose to greet the applause emanating from both the home and away sections. Leicester had woken up and Vardy saw a shot blocked after meeting Maddison’s low corner.
Nicola Zalewski saw a late shot blocked by substitute Timothy Castagne and Abraham helped the home fans to ensure Roma crossed the line. “Let’s go to Tirana,” Mourinho said after his post-match press conference, as Roma were ready for their first European final since 1991. “I shed a tear because my emotion was for everyone who loves this club. It’s a giant club without the trophy room compared to the social dimension of the club. It’s not a trophy – it’s just a final – but it means a lot to them Because I’ve lived and worked in this city for 11 months, I know what that means.