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By Tom Kington at Stadio Olimpico
AS Roma were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League despite Vincenzo Montella scoring an equaliser three minutes into added time that earned the Italian side a draw at home to Bayer 04 Leverkusen.
Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov had seemingly given the visitors all three points with a spectacular strike eight minutes from the end, only for Montella to respond with a low shot deep into added time. Roma therefore have one point, six less than the other three sides in Group B, and can no longer finish in the top two.
Roma coach Luigi Del Neri was forced to field a makeshift midfield after losing Simone Perrotta to injury shortly before the game. With Olivier Dacourt already out, a first-team debut was given to 18-year-old Raffaele De Martino. For Leverkusen, Hanno Balitsch and Marko Babic replaced Jermaine Jones and Jens Nowotny.
Despite the late change, the game being played behind closed doors for disciplinary reasons and the absence of Christian Panucci and Daniele De Rossi through suspension, the home side looked brighter in the opening minutes, Alberto Aquilani breaking from midfield in the first minute only to shoot high.
Berbatov was often a lonely presence up front for Leverkusen, despite the support of Robson Ponte and Jacek Krzynówek on the flanks. A cramped midfield of Carsten Ramelow, Bernd Schneider and Marko Babic – preferred to striker Andrej Voronin – kept Roma captain Francesco Totti shackled and the echoes around the empty stadium appeared to subdue the mood of both sides.
Totti did finally find himself in space in the 18th minute but his shot flew wide, the first of a series of speculative efforts from both teams. While Leverkusen's four-man defence kept Montella stifled, Krzynówek was beginning to find space at the other end, drifting out to the right in the 20th minute before cutting inside only to miss the target.
With the groups of fans singing outside the locked stadium making a growing noise in an attempt to create an atmosphere, Roma began to raise the tempo as half-time approached. Montella almost broke the deadlock in some style seconds before the half-time whistle but his curled shot on the run clipped the outside of Jörg Butt's post.
After winning a series of corners soon after the restart, the visitors looked happy to sit back despite Montella threatening in the 54th minute with an angled shot on the turn that bulged the side-netting. It was then Leverkusen's turn to press, a cutback from Babic surprising Berbatov, who could only shoot high. With Totti forced to forage deep for possession and Montella looking isolated as Roma sought the crucial breakthrough, Del Neri threw on more attacking power in the 62nd minute in the form of Egyptian striker Mido.
Instead it was Leverkusen who began to build pressure, with Mido forced to defend with time running out. In the 82nd minute it looked as if home hopes had been ended as Berbatov collected possession on the left of the penalty area, flipped the ball over his shoulder with his left foot to leave Traianos Dellas stranded before beating Roma goalkeeper Carlo Zotti with a beautifully-judged lob. Although Montella subsequently restored Roma's slender hopes by equalising deep into added time, the Italian side still have it all to do to remain in Europe, with the UEFA Cup their only hope.
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