Leicester’s European adventure came to an end in Rome as Tammy Abraham’s 27th goal of the season, an early header, decided this Europa Conference League semi-final. Brendan Rodgers said he hoped his side would be able to keep their story going but exited the competition after failing to hurt Roma at a typically noisy Stadio Olimpico. José Mourinho could yet cap his first season in charge of the Serie A club with a trophy in Tirana later this month.
Rodgers knew his players would be given a warm Roman welcome and they were greeted by an intimidating atmosphere. They arrived on to the pitch about an hour before kick-off to loud jeers – even when the 3,500 travelling supporters cheered the name of their title-winning manager, Claudio Ranieri, who managed both of these clubs with mixed success, they were drowned out by a partisan home crowd – but the goalkeepers seemed determined to keep things relaxed, starting their warmup with a crossbar challenge from halfway. Outside, Roma fans geared up for the game on Ponte Duca d’Aosta, the bridge on the Tiber river a scene a carmine red haze. The Leicester chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who mingled with supporters in Eindhoven in the previous round, made a point of going over to the away fans before shaking the hand of every one of his players as they emerged for the warmup.
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 had explicitly pointed to Roma’s key threats being on the counterattack and set plays so the sight of Abraham towering above Ricardo Pereira to power in a header from an out-swinging corner after 11 minutes would have been galling. Rodgers quietly retreated to the away dugout. Mourinho was unmoved, as if this was par for the course. By then Roma had already panicked Kasper Schmeichel, Lorenzo Pellegrini’s whipped free-kick towards the front post forcing the Leicester goalkeeper into an unconvincing save, after Pereira upended Nicola Zalewski, the exuberant Roma wing-back who also impressed in the first leg.
Rodgers lined his team up to attack Roma – James Justin and Harvey Barnes replaced Timothy Castagne and Marc Albrighton with the manager recognising the need for pace at both ends and positioned his front three on halfway at corners – but they failed to test Rui Patrício during a frustrating first half. Six minutes after falling behind, Schmeichel was alert to make a save from a tight angle after Pellegrini latched on to a cute through ball and Roma headed down the tunnel at the break unruffled. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, a year on from playing for Luton at home to Rotherham in the Championship, tried his luck with a curled effort that was always sailing wide and soon after the big screens at each end of this enormous arena displayed the face of a rather content Francesco Totti. It was that kind of night.
Rodgers switched to a back three at half-time, introducing Daniel Amartey and Kelechi Iheanacho in place of Barnes and Ademola Lookman, who had been easily shackled, and pushed Pereira and Justin forward to wing-back. Leicester restarted with a discernible vim, Dewsbury-Hall digging his heels in to win a free-kick and moments later Justin surged forward down the left flank before his attempt to pick out Jamie Vardy was cut out for a corner. Dewsbury-Hall sent another shot flashing wide shortly after the television cameras panned to Ranieri. The Italian stood to acknowledge the applause emanating from both the home and away sections. Leicester had roused and Vardy saw a shot blocked after he met James Maddison’s low corner.
Leicester saw more of the ball in the second half but their first shot on target did not arrive until the 79th minute when Maddison shot straight at Patrício and Iheanacho located the same target a few minutes later. Zalewski saw a shot blocked by the substitute Castagne and Abraham geed up the home fans to ensure Mourinho’s team got over the line.