A late penalty from Miralem Pjanic revived Roma’s chances of qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League in a dramatic 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday.
With Roma in desperate need of a first win in the group to maintain their last 16 qualification hopes, Mohamed Salah’s second-minute strike settled any early nerves at the Stadio Olimpico.
The hosts doubled their lead before the half hour when goal-shy Edin Dzeko hit only his second goal for the Giallorossi and his first Champions League goal since November 2013 to give the hosts what looked like a commanding lead.
But, two weeks after the sides’ dramatic 4-4 draw at the BayArena, Roma were stunned in five second-half minutes when Admir Mehmedi and Javier Hernandez capitalised on spectacular defensive lapses to pull Roger Schmidt’s visitors level six minutes after the restart.
Roma were shaky for the remainder of the second half but were handed a lifeline when Omer Toprak saw red late on for pushing Salah into the net as the Egyptian was about to pull the trigger at the far post.
Russian referee Sergei Karasev pointed to the spot and Miralem Pjanic stepped up to beat Bernd Leno for a 3-2 lead on 81 minutes.
Roma now move up to second place in Group E but Garcia will be looking for improvements after a second-half display that was completely at odds with Roma’s impressive first half performance.
“I’m very happy with the win, we had to win to give ourselves a chance and we came through,” said Garcia.
“We had a great first half, but failed to score possible third and fourth goals. Right now, I’m thinking about the five minutes in which we lost concentration and let them level.
“But I’m also thinking about the fact we never gave up, we dug deep to pull ourselves back into the game and to finally win what was a crucial match for us.”
Leverkusen have dropped to third, at a point behind Roma, but coach Roger Schmidt says he expects their bid to go down to the wire.
“Roma never gave up and now they’ve given themselves a chance in terms of qualifying,” said Schmidt.
“The table is very tight. When you have Italian, Spanish and German clubs in the same group it is going to go right down to the final matches in the group.”
Salah put the hosts ahead after just two minutes after a great one-two with Dzeko, who held the ball up well in the centre circle to set the Egyptian free down the right and bundle the ball past Leno.
Astonishingly, Roma’s last victory in the competition was their 5-1 win over CSKA Moscow in September 2014 but Garcia’s men were quickly in command.
Leverkusen were showing little threat and, worse, had their heads elsewhere when Roma doubled their lead before the half hour.
A long Levekusen cross found no takers, and when ‘keeper Wojciech Szczesny found Pjanic in space the ball was eventually worked to Nainggolan, whose weighted through ball found Dzeko behind the defence.
The Bosnian took several strides before firing past Leno and scoring his first Roma goal more than two months after his maiden strike in a 2-1 win over Juventus.
If Roma thought they had the match wrapped up, they were soon brought back to earth in a stunning start to the second half.
The hosts stingy defence suddenly became charitable and after less than a minute Kevin Kampl cut back for Mehmedi from inside the area to fire past Szczesny into the top of the net.
Roma were all at sea and five minutes later paid the cost when Hernandez was played through by Karim Bellarabi to power a shot past Szczesny to hit his fourth goal of this season’s competition.
Garcia, who saw claims for a penalty waved away despite Dzeko falling under a challenge from Jonathan Tah at a free kick, replaced Gervinho with Juan Iturbe on the hour.
But Roma only found salvation on 80 minutes when the referee pointed to the spot after sending off Toprak for his push on Salah.