After Chelsea dismantled Arsenal in Baku’s all-London UEFA Europa League final in midweek, Saturday night sees Madrid’s turn to host the cream of English football, as Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool meet at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Champions League final, with the tag of European champions at stake.
The odds of an all-Premier League Champions League final at the start of the season may not have been that substantial, but after the paths of both sides’ route to final during the early stages of the season, those numbers have at times reached almost insurmountable odds during a remarkable campaign.
Meander to Madrid
Following a Group stage where both English sides struggled to merely qualify for the knockout stages, how both teams have reached this stage is approaching something close to the implausible – from various points in the tournament.
Despite their position as last season’s runners-up, Jurgen Klopp‘s men had until the turn of the year shown little of the fortitude, form or character that had punctuated their route to the final in 2018, in particular in Europe on the road.
Even after perhaps the most unpredictable and dramatic European tournaments in recent memory, Liverpool laboured in their respective pool containing Napoli, Crvena Zvezda and Paris Saint-Germain. Most surprisingly suffering a 2-0 defeat in Belgrade, and a single-goal loss to the Partenopei in Naples in what was one of the flattest showings of the Klopp era thus far.
Surely, this side would not survive the knockout stages? With their collective eyes beginning to focus on their growing lead back home in the Premier League also, that seemed as though it would be the focus of attention.
Spurs equally only sneaked into the last 16 by a mere whisker, and had it not been for Lucas Moura‘s 85th-minute leveler at Wembley versus Barcelona, Mauricio Pochettino‘s men would only have dreamt of their night of destiny ahead. But as the European season has progressed, even the most fanciful outcome has began to appear on the horizon.
After dumping out Borussia Dortmund and then dramatically one of the favourites to make this weekend in Madrid, in Manchester – via a hugely contentious VAR decision – Spurs had made the last four. Liverpool meanwhile impressively disposed of Bayern Munich to reignite their hopes and then FC Porto. But both journeys both had so far were a mere taste of an extraordinary 24 hours in the semi-finals to come.
Remarkable last four
As Tottenham faced an Ajax side who knocked out holder Real Madrid in the last 16, then outclassed Juventus, Spurs faced a sizeable task to reach the final against a side burgeoning with talent who were regaling the footballing world with memories of the great Dutch sides of the ’90s.
Liverpool were tasked with the daunting prospect of facing a La Blaugrana side that had raced away with the La Liga title in Spain and looked destined to win their sixth European crown.
After both English sides trailed after the first leg – Liverpool by three goals after a heavy loss at the Nou Camp, and Spurs by a single goal to De Godenzonen at Wembley – the odds were stacked against the duo. What followed in the space of two night of sheer footballing theatre may never be eclipsed again.
As a cacophonous Anfield roared the Reds on in hope more than expectation, Divock Origi‘s early goal lit the blue touch paper on Merseyside. Still only a goal to the good at the break however, substitute Georginio Wijnaldum‘s double in three minutes had the scores level, as Origi then netted a fourth to send Liverpool into ecstacy and to Madrid.
Tottenham meanwhile arguably bettered the efforts of their Premier League rivals. Having conceded twice in the opening half of the first period in Amsterdam, Spurs faced a monumental task in overturning a three-goal deficit at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The north Londoners however would not go quietly and it was again Moura who rode to Pochettino’s rescue. Even when the Brazilian grabbed one back few expected the pulsating Lilywhite fightback we saw, but after Lucas grabbed his brace shortly after, the comeback was on.
It all appeared forlorn as Ajax played out time in their own possession until the dying seconds when – you guessed it – it was Moura was on the end of hopeful flick into the area from a Dele Alli, and slotted the ball low past Andre Onana as the footballing fraternity globally gasped in astonishment. Spurs had done the seemingly impossible.
European immortality await Reds
For Liverpool, Saturday night presents the chance to erase the memories of their defeat to Real Madrid in last year’s showpiece finale – almost 12 months to the day Los Blancos inflicted a 3-1 defeat on the Reds in Kiev.
14 years on from their last European crown in that famous night in Istanbul, Klopp’s men have the chance to stamp themselves in the pantheon of football history and jump into third place outright in the European Cup’s roll call of clubs, with the most ‘Ol Big Eyes’ to their name.
In what would be a sixth occasion to lift the trophy, only AC Milan with seven and Real Madrid with 13 would have won the top prize in club competition on the continent in their respective histories on more occasions.
Whilst Kiev may have been punctuated by the tears of Mohamed Salah, Madrid might just see the Merseysiders’ booking their spot as a European legend – if indeed they are not there already.
Spurs’ moment in history?
Conversely for Spurs, this will be the first European Cup final in the club’s history. They do however have two UEFA Cups to their name in both 1972 and 1984 – with a further Cup Winners Cup in the early ’60s.
Such as the metaphorical Red Seas have parted to pave Tottenham’s way into the final, can Pochettino’s side go one step further than their north London neighbours did in 2006, when Arsenal suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Barca in Paris?
If destiny has been seemingly showing its’ face since the turn of the year, Harry Kane‘s full fitness is a major plus having their talisman fit, but it remains to be seen if the winner of the World Cup Golden Boot last summer can have an impact against a Liverpool side that domestically have dominated Spurs.
There is however hope for first-timers Spurs. All five of Olympique Marseille, Steaua Bucharest, Feyenoord, Red Star Belgrade and Aston Villa have won each one during their only final appearance – to date
Managers’ ‘losers’ tag
Whatever the outcome on Saturday night in the Spanish capital, one man will finally be able to shed the tag that weighs heavy on their shoulder as ‘losing’ manager.
For Klopp, it could be case of third time lucky in a Champions League final, having lost last year and also against former German rivals Bayern Munich when as steward for Borussia Dortmund in 2013’s all-Bundesliga final at Wembley Stadium.
Though a domestic double winner in the German top flight of League and DFB Pokal in 2012, the 51-year-old has been accused of losing the big final in his homeland. This weekend is his latest chance to silence his critics.
For Pochettino meanwhile, during a now ten-year managerial career, the Argentine is yet to win a trophy for a club under his stewardship. The closest he has come was as runners-up in the League Cup losing to Chelsea in 2015.
As the man who has revolutionised not only Spurs but the Premier League more widely, the power shift in north London has long been mooted but without a single trophy to Tottenham’s name. Should they manage to finally win silverware, to do so with arguably the biggest prize in domestic club football, Pochettino’s five-year stint with the Lilywhites will finally have evidential merit.
The 2019 UEFA Champions League final sees Tottenham Hotspur face Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid on Saturday evening, kick-off 8pm UK time.
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