By Neil Leverett
- Liverpool win sixth European Cup after 2-0 win over Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid
- Blues humble Arsenal in second all-English finale affair, as Manchester City retain league crown and clinch double
- England and Wales book Euro 2020 spot, as Northern Ireland and Scotland must go through play-offs
FOOTBALL – As 2019 draws to close, Britwatch Sport cast its’ eye back over the past 12 months in football, and looks ahead to the New Year and 2020.
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Red Kings of Europe
As what seemed to be half of the population of two cities descended on Madrid for the 2019 UEFA Champions League final, Liverpool won their sixth European Cup against Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur, as Jurgen Klopp finally lifted ‘Ol Big Ears’ at the third time of asking.
Following defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley in 2013 and in 2018 to Real Madrid in Kyiv, this past June at the Wanda Metropolitano finally saw the German end a six-year pilgrimage to the pinnacle of European club football.
As Mohamed Salah gave the Reds a second-minute penalty, Divick Origi then sent Liverpool fans – and their boss – into ecstasy in the Spanish capital, as the Reds further cemented their place into the annuls of footballing history.
After heartbreak in the Ukraine 12 months earlier, this night felt like a watershed moment in this new Liverpool era, and as we have seen in the following months with subsequent Club World Cup honours and a surely beckoning first Premier League trophy, this current crop on Merseyside are threatening to become one of the finest teams in not just recent memory, but together with the finests sides that have ever played the game.
Arsenal buckle in Baku
As two other of the English top flight’s finest vied for the Europa League trophy in Baku a fortnight before on the opposite side of the continent, Chelsea humbled their London rivals Arsenal in the City of Winds, as Eden Hazard paid the Blues a fitting swansong with an imperious brace and a Man of the Match showing.
With the Blues celebrating a handsome 4-1 win, the defeated Gunners were left not only licking their wounds, but found themselves and their fan-base plunged into despair, with the many cracks that had been papered over during that season grossly exposed on the big stage.
Led to the finale showpiece by three-time winner Unai Emery, destiny seemed to be knocking for the North Londoners, which made their subsequent capitulation in the final the more painful to bare for Gunners’ fans, having experienced groundhog day at the worst avenue possible.
After going three goals down – with former striker Olivier Giroud netted to twist the knife – Alex Iwobi‘s 69th-minute goal rekindled hopes, before in traditional style, Arsenal conceded a penalty duly converted by Hazard three minutes later.
That defeat rather set in motion Emery’s dismissal only last month, but even in the new Mikel Arteta era as we saw on Sunday against Chelsea, there are many bad habits and poor methods that need to be hammered out, before Arsenal can rely on not seeing old problems again rear their unsightly heads.
Guardiola sets standard
Despite now looking extreme outsiders to hold on to their league crown, 2019 for Manchester City nonetheless broke a ten-year trend in the Premier League – and as we ring in a new decade – became the first side to retain the trophy in the last one.
After romping home to the 2017/18 title, their defending season was a far more fraught one, but Pep Guardiola‘s side went on to cling onto the title by a single point on the final day of the season back in May, after overhauling Liverpool’s ten-point lead on the cusp of New Year – winning the last fourteen matches of the term in a row.
Whilst the Reds look set to hold on this time around, City ended the season with a 98-point tally, boasting a side on the greatest riches spear-headed by Kun Aguero, the blossoming Raheem Sterling and the evergreen David Silva, with Kevin De Bruyne encountering a difficult season due to injury.
The tools at the disposal of Guardiola were enough however, but after retaining the crown, the question now is what next for the Spaniard’s era at the Etihad. But, if there is one record to take for this particular City side in 2019, it will have been in breaking a precedent that seemed set to extend well into second decade, as City clinched the league and FA Cup double.
Euro contenders emerge
On the international stage, Portugal were crowned inaugural UEFA Europa League champions to go with their European Champions tag they are set to defend on the continent next summer, beating the Netherlands in the final in Lisbon.
England, just 12 months on from their semi-final World Cup defeat continued to evolved into serious silverware contenders once more, and despite suffering a rare qualifying defeat in Prague in November, will be amongst the favourites to win Euro 2020.
Alas for Gareth Southgates‘ men, the contenders and indeed pretenders to the throne are many. World champions France have been at their obdurate best in qualifying and despite also having suffered defeat to Turkey in the Group stages, Didier Deschamps‘ men are not to underestimated – far from it.
Spain’s U-21s took home the European title last summer in Italy and San Marino, and many of those burgeoning talents step up to Luis Enrique’s senior side, La Furia Roja will be there of thereabouts. As will Belgium whose golden generation are bigger to lose its’ shine, but with De Bruyne in their ranks, the Red Devils will want finally show some reward for a squad of substantial talent.
Portugal will of course not let their European crown go without a fight, nor the Dutch who having ended a spell in the footballing doldrums have the potential to make serious waves, harking back to their 1988 win.
Italy meanwhile are quietly building a team stacked with talent whose youthful side will be dark horses. For the home nations, the Welsh dragon will roar again, whilst both Scotland and Northern Ireland face tricky play-off ties in March. Regardless who which 24 teams make passage to next summer’s Europe-wide tournament, Euro 2020 will be one of the marquee competitions of the next 12 months.
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