Champions League: Underdog spirit drives Klopp, Di Francesco

Roma's manager Eusebio Di Francesco attends a press conference at Anfield, Liverpoo, England, Monday, April 23, 2018. Roma will play a Champions League semi final first leg soccer match on Tuesday. (Martin Rickett/PA via AP)

By STEVE DOUGLAS

AP Sports Writer

LIVERPOOL, England (AP) The similarities between Juergen Klopp and Eusebio Di Francesco go far beyond their facial hair, designer glasses, and quirky humor.

In terms of tactics, passion, mentality and their route taken in coaching, the managers of Liverpool and Roma appear to be cut from the same cloth, creating a fascinating subplot ahead of the meeting of their teams in the Champions League semifinals.

The respect between them was evident as they spoke on Monday on the eve of the first leg at Anfield, a match that counts as the biggest in Di Francesco's managerial career and the most significant in Klopp's 2 1/2 years at Anfield.

"I am very happy but also concerned to play against a team coached by such a good manager," Di Francesco said, "but I believe my philosophy is quite similar."

That would be the high press, the high energy, the expected use of a 4-3-3 formation with the wingers drifting inside, the full backs overlapping, and the lone striker dropping off.

Manchester City and Barcelona couldn't handle the intensity of Liverpool and Roma, respectively, in a triumph for the underdogs in the quarterfinals. A week after City was overwhelmed in a 3-0 first-leg loss at Anfield, Barca was blown away by the same scoreline in a historic night at the Stadio Olimpico.

"I do understand probably a lot of people would have thought this semifinal would be Barcelona vs. Manchester City," Klopp said, "but it is not because it is football. Roma made it possible and us, as well. Maybe our situations are similar."

Both teams know their place in modern-day European soccer. Neither can stop their best players from leaving - Mohamed Salah left Roma to join Liverpool in the offseason, Philippe Coutinho left Liverpool to join Barcelona in January just as Luis Suarez did in 2014 - so they are constantly fighting against the odds.

Klopp and Di Francesco didn't take the easy route in coaching, either, starting at a relatively low base.

Klopp's first coaching role was at Mainz in the German second tier, Di Francesco's was with Virtus Lanciano in the Italian third tier.

While Klopp got Mainz promoted and then enjoyed success at his next club Borussia Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga and reached the Champions League final in 2013, Di Francesco had posts at Pescara and Lecce before making his mark at Sassuolo and guiding the club into Serie A. He even got the team into the Europa League before joining Roma in 2017.

"Klopp has already proved his worth - he has won a number of titles - and I have great ambitions, too," said Di Francesco, who, at age 48, is two years younger than Klopp. "I will nurture this ambition to reach the final."

Di Francesco insisted Roma would not take a step back at Anfield, instead going toe to toe with Liverpool and its devastating front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

Klopp has the same mentality when Liverpool plays the heavyweights of the English Premier League, and he has a strong record in those games.

"We have continued believing in ourselves, and Roma is the same," Klopp said. "They changed manager - at least we didn't have to do that - but he is doing a brilliant job and so they have all my respect. If anyone thinks we two are underdogs, who cares?"

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Updated April 23, 2018

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