By Neil Leverett
- Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur beat mountainous odds to book their respective places in the UEFA Champions League Final
- Premier League duo stage remarkable comeback wins, following 48 hours of unsurpassed drama on the continent
- Reds and Lilywhites will meet at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, on June 1
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – Following a week of unprecedented drama in the UEFA Champions League, just how did Liverpool and Spurs beat the odds and reach next month’s final in Madrid?
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As weeks go in European football, the previous two evenings in both Amsterdam and on Merseyside will take some beating. Indeed, there may never again be two consecutive nights of competition – with such gravitous stakes – that packed such high drama, tension, tears, ecstasy and sheer emotion as long as the European Cup exists.
Having booked their respective places in this year’s showpiece UEFA Champions League at the Wanda Metropolitano next month, both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur stand on the precipice of sporting history and an occasion that few had even considered possible, a mere 48 hours before taking place.
Against the odds both Reds and Lilywhites overcame substantial odds, booking an all-Premier League final for the first time since Manchester United and Chelsea endured penalty drama Moscow 11 years ago, but just how did messrs Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino pull it off?
NEVER count Liverpool out in Europe
Liverpool, of course could never be counted out entirely against Barcelona at Anfield this past Tuesday, but with a three-goal deficit and having failed to score am away goal at the Nou Camp, even those that believed Klopp’s men had a chance, had their beliefs outweighed by the sheer illustriousness of their Blaugrana opponents and the sheer size of the Catalonian mountain ahead.
Which makes what transpired through 90 minutes in front of The Kop ever the more surreal. An early goal was a necessity, but even after Divock Origi had again risen from the Merseyside footballing ashes on the sidelines to open the scoring early on, few looking on could foresee what was to come.
Surely Lionel Messi would have his say on proceedings? Wouldn’t Luis Suarez again score against former club as he had done in the first leg? Whilst the Argentinian prowled the midfield and attacking areas, his miss from 12-yards out past Alisson‘s goal was rather indicative of a disappointing evening for the mercurial wizard.
But still Liverpool had a summit to scale. Cue the arrival of Georginio Wijnaldum at the interval. Cue pandemonium across the city, nay the footballing world. Within the space of three second half minutes, the Dutchman had hauled his side level at 3-3 as every man, woman and dog watched on rubbing their collective visages.
Tuesday night was a night for heroes in a football obsessed city, but its was not to be the talismanic Sadio Mane, nor the stricken Mohamed Salah who watched on as a fan. The night belonged to ‘Gini’ no doubt, but also to Origi, who bookended his contribution to fire home a remarkable winner after Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s razor-sharp awareness to slide a ball across the Barca boughs, to send Anfield into raptures.
Liverpool had achieved the unthinkable, but really for a club so steeped in bucking the trend of comebacks it should come as no surprise. After falling at the final hurdle in Kiev last year to Real Madrid, Klopp’s men have another to take their moment in history and win the ‘Ol Big Ears’ for a sensational sixth time in their history.
Barca’s defensive dynasty dwindling
Was it all a case of just Liverpool’s sheer bloody-minded determination that pulled off an upwards of 50/1 shot in reaching consecutive Champions League Finals at kick-off on Tuesday night? The simply answer is, no.
For all the Reds’ never-say-die attitude, the hosts were aided by a Barcelona defence that continues to leave a lot to be desired. The full-back areas for Ernesto Valverde continue to be a rather sharp thorn in the side. Dani Alves is yet to be replaced and despite the cult status of Sergi Roberto after his Paris Saint-Germain heroics in 2017, the Spaniard is yet to show the same consistency and edge to his game as Alves did.
On the opposite flank, the emphasis continues to err of pace with Jordi Alba, but as his mistake showed for the opening and catalyst goal the left-back has many an error in the defensive locker – in spite of what the Spanish international brings to the table.
The real issues however lie in central defence. Gerard Pique remains a reliable operator, but partner Clement Lenglet continues to greatly expose La Blaugrana’s back line. The Frenchman was in full rabbit-in-headlights mode on Merseyside and as compatriot Samuel Umtiti watched on as he regains form and fitness after a difficult season, Lenglet’s decision making and lack of awareness stuck out like a nail in a piece of wood.
It would be churlish to suggest Liverpool’s win was not down to heart, courage, endeavour and total belief of their ability, but the Reds’ cause was made possible by the fading dynasty of a defence that once boasted the rock-solid Carles Puyol and Eric Abidal to name but two stalwarts. Barcelona may have romped home La Liga, but there is much to do for the Catalans to once again stand at the peak of European football.
Drama eclipsed on the Amstel
Thursday morning in N17 would have been a scene of a stream of sore heads as they trudged to work in the London rain or those returned home from the Netherlands. Efforts however, that had been worth it, after yet another evening of European drama – this time in the Dutch capital – where Tottenham overcame odds perhaps just as steep to beat Ajax on their home turf for only the second time this season, and under even a broader umbrella of drama than back home in England the night before.
The Reds’ stirring comeback would have undoubtedly injected faith in Pochettino’s men that they too could stamp their flight to the Spanish capital, but after early strikes from Matthias de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech had put de Godenzonen in command and 3-0 up on aggregate at half time, the Lilywhites pulled off a comeback similar to Liverpool, but in far more sensational manner.
Needing three goals without reply to win on away goals, Lucas Moura ignited the Spurs’ burners in the 55th-minute that set a wave of panic into across the Ajax ranks. An feeling that was magnified four minutes later, when the Brazilian was on hand to capitalise after a blunder from goalkeeper Andre Onana in the midst of a goalmouth scramble suddenly saw Spurs within a goal of the seemingly impossible.
Or was it? Despite Ajax having again become every fan’s second team in the Champions League this season, the Dutch side though hugely and precociously talented are still hugely inexperienced. That reared its’ head in spectacular fashion at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday night.
Still, with moments left the hosts looked to have weathered the storm and had themselves spurned chances to put the game to bed through Dusan Tadic, and again Ziyech. As the game ticked into the 95th-minute, fortune favoured Spurs as the ball fell to Dele Alli and as a pass was fed to Moura to complete a stunning hat-trick, time stood still for a moment, as shock fell upon Amsterdam as one half of north London erupted into a cacphony of noise.
Even the most ardent of Arsenal fans couldn’t deny what they had seen was remarkable – even worthy of merit – as Spurs had somehow reached the final of a Champions League. Such had been the drama on Merseyside 24 hours before, it was only fitting the game was set for an astonishing climax, as Pochettino and his charges wept with joy at the final whistle.
Is destiny on Spurs’ side?
Events of the dying embers of the game in Amsterdam having given Spurs a shot at sporting greatness. Liverpool will of course be the slight favourites – perhaps strong favourites given their league status – but given the events of Tottenham’s European campaign, is destiny falling into Spurs’ lap?
Let’s not forget that only last December the Lilywhites were on the verge of ignominious exit into the Europa League, before a combination of Christian Eriksen‘s late winner against Inter Milan at Wembley, coupled with Moura’s leveler at the Nou Camp in the final Group game against Barcelona, that kept Spurs in the hat for the last 16.
When we consider the roller-coaster they endured but won through against Manchester City last month also – including a debatable VAR decision for them – could Tottenham go one step further than their north London rivals did in 2006, when an heroic effort from a ten-man Gunners side, saw Arsenal with their hearts broken by a 14-minute double courtesy of Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti sinking Arsene Wenger‘s men in Paris. Could Spurs now achieve what many believed to be far-fetched? Again?
Reds favourite in one-off?
After a week of drama, events now turn to Madrid on the first of next month as London and Liverpool descend on the Spanish capital in what is set to be a fevered atmosphere. Whilst the Reds have a second chance to undo the pain of last year’s final, Spurs have a chance to finally win their first piece of silverware under Pochettino – what would arguably the biggest prize in the game.
Having negotiated Ajax by the skin of their teeth however, Liverpool will be a far more difficult proposition especially in a one-off game. Given their European track record the Reds should be feared, remembering also that both Salah and Roberto Firmino were absent on Tuesday night.
Tottenham however, will likely have their talismanic captain Harry Kane – at the very least – in the squad, which adds a different element to Spurs’ game. It should be noted that should Kane play alas, Moura in particular will have to play a deeper role reducing his effectiveness, that could yet hamper a Tottenham win.
Liverpool would appear to be the favourite to win in Madrid. 24 points separate the two sides domestically but given the monumental status of the game in Spurs’ history, the barometer of pressure will not escape the Lilywhites.
Pochettino, despite revitalising Spurs still has the monkey on his back of still having yet to win a trophy with Spurs, but with the hand of destiny on the Argentine’s shoulder, can he guide the north Londoners to one more precious win? Or, will Klopp finally be able to free himself of his own shackles of European disappointment. The build up to UEFA Champions League final on June 1 will be fascinating.
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The 2019 UEFA Champions League final takes place at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur on June 1 at 20:00 BST
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