16 Conclusions: Tottenham 0-2 Liverpool

Date published: Sunday 2nd June 2019 12:15

1) After what felt like a lifetime of anticipation, expectation and build-up, collective loads were blown within a couple of minutes. The eventual recovery was followed by a burst of exhilaration and satisfaction for one party, and a crushing, familiar devastation for the other.

Sorry if that hits a little too close to home for some teenage love lives, but the 2019 Champions League final was the occasion that promised so much before delivering comparatively little. It was not an event for the neutral, nor a celebration of the sport or an example of the game being played at its absolute peak.

Yet that matters little. Liverpool and Tottenham had both accomplished the unthinkable before they even crossed the threshold at the Wanda Metropolitano. These two sides had flirted with European oblivion at least once this season before dragging themselves to the promised land. It was little wonder that neither seemed to have much left in the tank by this stage, considering they were both running on fumes long before now.

Their destinations veered off towards the end, but the respective journeys offered a lifetime of memories. It will numb neither the pain felt by Tottenham fans nor the joy experienced by Liverpool supporters. This was the final that never should have happened – indeed, it felt like that pretty much throughout.

 

2) By quirk of footballing fate, this fixture is now Jurgen Klopp’s first and most famous as Liverpool manager. Few could possibly have expected the Reds to be crowned champions of Europe within four years when he replaced Brendan Rodgers in October 2015 and oversaw a drab 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane.

To put this achievement into context, not a single player that started that game was in the side in Madrid. The only two members of that injury-ravaged matchday squad that battled to a goalless draw at Tottenham to feature on Saturday were James Milner and Divock Origi. Both rose off the bench to stamp their indelible marks on this game.

This has been a complete and utter transformation: from the tenth-best team in England when Klopp took over to Europe’s greatest at the end of his third full season; from also-rans to front-runners; from Simon Mignolet and Martin Skrtel to Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk.

“We can wait for it,” Klopp said at his Anfield unveiling. “I don’t want to say we have to wait for 20 years but when I sit here in four years I’m pretty sure we will have won a title. I’m pretty sure. If not, the next one will maybe be in Switzerland.”

The German can happily take an army knife to those plans now. Three years and eight months after his arrival, his and Liverpool’s respective waits for glory are over. There is not enough humble pie to go round.

 

3) By contrast, seven of the players that started for Tottenham in Klopp’s first game on these shores were present in Mauricio Pochettino’s line-up. Only Kieran Trippier, Harry Winks, Moussa Sissoko and Heung-min Son had not played in that match four years ago. There is no greater way of explaining how these two managers took completely different routes to reach the same stage. Where one led a revolution, the other built on foundations of stability and familiarity.

It was a hurdle too far for Tottenham, but it was always underplayed just how much of an underdog they were here. That this was a final, a one-off game, only goes so far as to offset one win in nine meetings, two defeats this season and a 26-point Premier League gap. Spurs had lost five of their last eight games; Liverpool had been beaten in five of their last 42 matches.

Tottenham had absolutely no right to be here whatsoever – which is not to say they didn’t deserve to reach the final. If anything, it reinforces the achievement. Anything extra would have been a bonus.

The key now is to use this platform instead of squandering it. Pochettino spoke of how a “miracle” victory would have been a perfect way to “close the five-year chapter” and leave. Defeat has to strengthen the idea that this is the start of a new story, a broadening of the horizons and a steep and sharp learning curve. Liverpool felt this same pain 12 months ago, but used it as motivation instead of a cause for mourning.

 

4) Liverpool’s opening goal in their previous seven European Cup finals – they failed to net in 1985 – came in the 28th, 64th, 82nd, 13th, 54th, 89th and 55th minutes respectively. More often than not, the Reds wait until the second half to announce themselves on the grandest stage.

It took all of 108 seconds in Madrid. Mohamed Salah, cruelly robbed of his chance to make his mark on last year’s final, converted the third-fastest goal in European Cup final history from the penalty spot before the clock had even ticked over to two minutes. Liverpool led.

The arguments will continue long into next season. Referee Damir Skomina barely hesitated in pointing to the spot after Sadio Mane’s speculative cross rebounded off Moussa Sissoko, with replays showing the ball had hit his chest before bouncing onto an arm that was stretched out, pleading for teammates to get into position.

It was a harsh but fair call, the correct decision by the letter of the law. Tottenham fans – fans of any team – would have justifiably complained had they not been awarded a penalty in the same circumstances, so it seems churlish to describe it as ‘absurd’, ‘laughable’ or ‘weak’ officiating.

 

5) It certainly wasn’t the cause for the defeat. If anything, it was the catalyst for a Tottenham response. That the goal came so early allowed the sense of injustice and wrongdoing to fester; they just had to harness that energy and take the challenge to a Liverpool side who seemed almost uncomfortable to score so soon.

No club embraces – or embraced – pessimism and defeatism quite like Tottenham. Those who have followed the club for decades would have expected the biggest game in the club’s modern history to feature such an incident. The worst-case scenario came and went within two minutes, giving them ample time to find an answer.

That they were the better side for most of the game will be scant consolation, particularly in defeat to the better side for most of the season. That they stood under the brightest possible spotlight for 90 minutes and did not look overwhelmed by or fearful of such a huge occasion is reason to be proud. Liverpool just boasted and bought the killer instinct that their opponents lacked at both ends.

 

6) It was lost in the commotion – hardly surprising in itself considering the frantic nature of the start – but Van Dijk played a huge role in the build-up to the goal. A particularly ugly game of head tennis broke out almost immediately after kick-off, with Joel Matip and Toby Alderweireld trading efforts. It was only when Van Dijk muscled Harry Kane out of the way to knock the ball down to Georginio Wijnaldum that either team gained a semblance of control.

The midfielder’s quick-thinking was key, Wijnaldum flicking the ball out to Jordan Henderson who played an instinctive, first-time ball over the top to Sadio Mane. He had already started his run down the left flank, but was able to take the pass into his stride, cut inside and force the penalty.

Liverpool had struck first, fast and hardest. Van Dijk’s contribution was as underplayed as it was integral, and set the tone for another commanding personal performance.

 

7) Jamie Carragher was likely not the only one “p*ssed off” with a schedule that granted both teams an unusual three-week break to prepare for this game. Liverpool, having won five of six matches in 21 days from April 21, had their momentum stalled. Tottenham, having lost four of their seven matches in 22 days from April 20, had an invaluable opportunity to regroup and recharge.

The main complaint was that Tottenham’s walking wounded were afforded an unexpected chance to recover, and so it proved with Harrys Kane and Winks both starting after lengthy injury lay-offs. Liverpool ostensibly benefited too, but only with Roberto Firmino passed fit to play.

It might have been perceived as a disadvantage to Liverpool initially, especially at a time when even the slightest of edges is magnified and exemplified. But the 20-day lull from the final game of the Premier League season to this showpiece showdown meant both sides – not just Tottenham – could choose their strongest line-ups. Yet this was only the second time Pochettino had ever named this XI (the first was against Manchester City in the quarter-final first leg), and the first time Klopp had made that particular selection.

The wait was agonising, but it ensured that neither manager could blame a weakened hand for folding in the final. The biggest game of the season often suffers when one or both sides have to deal with notable absences. This at least levelled the playing field – not that either Kane or Firmino were any good.

 

8) But it was impossible to watch both teams labour through the first half and suggest that the respite was a positive. Tottenham dominated possession without even a hint of incision, while Liverpool misplaced the ball like it was confidence in a Premier League title race. Just 101 of their passes found their target in the opening 45 minutes – the fewest passes they have completed in any half of any game in any competition this season.

It might have been the weight of the occasion, the burden from Kiev they had carried on their backs for more than 12 months, or perhaps even the sweltering, stifling, suffocating heat. Maybe it was a combination of all three. But Liverpool stumbled through the opening exchanges, and Tottenham looked reluctant to truly test the Step Brothers-fuelled myth that you should never wake a sleepwalker. They were better, but barely created anything until the second half.

This game should at least disprove the theory that the Premier League would benefit from a winter break. A ten-day break will be accommodated into the top-flight fixture schedule from next season but the effects of this 20-day pause were clear to see. Both teams struggled for rhythm, tempo and flow in a game that was never going to live up to almost three weeks of anticipation.

 

9) Tottenham had two shots in the first half, both from outside the area and neither capable of troubling Alisson. There was a sense that they were being held at arm’s length but it was more a case of poor decision-making or the lack of a deft touch.

After 20 minutes Christian Eriksen played Son through on goal after Kane had dragged Van Dijk out of position. The South Korean had only Trent Alexander-Arnold to beat for a one-on-one chance, but was foiled by the 20-year-old.

Just before half-time Danny Rose found Dele Alli in space on the left-hand side, with Tottenham in a three-versus-three situation. But the subsequent pass to Son was overhit and Alisson collected the loose ball comfortably.

In first-half stoppage time Alli’s lay-off granted Eriksen time and space around 20 yards out; his effort was high, wide and ever so disappointing. Tottenham were the instigators but had a tendency to stamp out their own fires just as the embers started to appear.

 

10) Van Dijk will receive the plaudits for helping keep Tottenham at bay. He was named man of the match but was arguably not even Liverpool’s best defender, and certainly not their most decisive.

His baffling block on Son after 75 minutes, when the forward burst through a strangely soft centre before Van Dijk essentially jogged back to clear for a corner, was crucial. But Alexander-Arnold was in the right place at the right time to prevent two huge chances.

The aforementioned covering for Van Dijk when Kane pulled him out of position for Son was an example of incredibly intelligent defending belying his years. More experienced right-backs would not have sensed the danger so soon, never mind prevented it from developing at the feet of a supreme forward.

His block on Alli early in the first half was similar. Eriksen had squeezed the ball through as Tottenham applied more pressure after the restart, but Alexander-Arnold was on hand to thwart the effort from eight yards.

It was a contribution that will sadly be diluted to mere mentions of a ‘hometown hero’ and statistics of him being the youngest player to start in consecutive Champions League finals. Such a mature, bright display deserves top billing. The boy who was “ganged up” on this time last year fought back with a vengeance and became a man.

 

11) “I have no clue how they will do it,” said Klopp in July, discussing the “big challenge” that Tottenham faced this season. It seemed bad enough with nine key players in the World Cup semi-finals, and that was before the lack of signings and stadium woes came to the fore.

Yet it was Spurs who continued to force the issue after the break. Pochettino opted to make no substitutions but there was a definite change in purpose and intent; they had more shots from the 46th minute to the 58th than they managed in the entire first half.

They still lacked that one player to dictate the play in an attacking sense. Winks did his job – only Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen completed more passes for either side – but he offers little going forward. Alli was typically ineffective, Son faded after a promising start, and Kane had 26 forgettable touches.

There was a distinct lack of service, but Pochettino will field inevitable questions over whether starting him was the right choice. Many felt it was a sentimental decision based on what he symbolises, but the same can be said of picking Lucas Moura because of the semi-final hat-trick.

Besides, the striker looked no more tired or rusty than any other player, and made up for his own lack of goal threat by creating opportunities for teammates with his movement as much as anything. To blame his selection would be to trivialise defeat. The lack of censure Klopp will receive for picking the even less productive Firmino is proof that history is written by the victors.

 

12) If there is one Tottenham player who might shoulder most of the blame, perhaps it’s Eriksen. It seemed as though he was deployed too far forward initially, restricting the potency of his passing range. Yet even when he dropped a little further back he failed to dominate the game as he should have.

The perennial links to Real Madrid and Barcelona really do look generous when the biggest game of his career is spent creating fewer chances than Rose, Kieran Trippier or Matip. The Dane was completely bypassed and failed his audition.

There is a world-class player in there, one capable of the sublime and the sumptuous. But Eriksen reaches that level so irregularly now that, at 27 and with one year remaining on his contract, Tottenham would be foolish not to consider his departure. For advice on whether selling a supremely talented individual can benefit the team as a whole, ask Liverpool about that Brazilian fella they sold 18 months ago.

 

13) Tottenham’s final chance seemed to come and go in the flicker of an eye. Trippier found a rare bit of space down Andy Robertson’s wing and crossed for Alli, but his header looped over the bar with Tottenham’s hopes not far behind.

Yet about a minute later, both Son and Lucas had opportunities to equalise. The former’s effort was parried by Alisson, who smothered the latter’s strike moments later. Alli then had a shot saved before Eriksen’s free-kick was parried to safety. Rose, Kane and Son tried to maintain a desperate onslaught in stoppage time even after the deficit was doubled, but Liverpool’s keeper thwarted each and every one of them.

Alisson ends his first season in English football with 27 clean sheets in all competitions, just one behind the single-season Premier League record held by Petr Cech in 2004/05. It is not outlandish to think that he could be a similar cornerstone to unprecedented success.

It was the most saves made in a Champions League final since such data was collected, and the most convincing example of what investing in an elite shot-stopper can do to a team. Liverpool creased in Kiev thanks to goalkeeping mistakes, but benefited from a majestic display in Madrid.

 

14) Spare a thought for Ali Ahamada, Diego Contento, Yoann Touzghar and Florian Thauvin. What must they have thought when a fellow member of the L’Equipe-nominated worst team of the 2014/15 Ligue Un season scored the clinching goal in the Champions League final after his semi-final heroics?

Origi’s Liverpool life has never been simple. He joined in summer 2014 before being loaned straight back to Lille, making his debut in a September 2015 defeat to Manchester United. A loan spell at Wolsburg came and went last season, as did speculation linking him with a move to Huddersfield. He has made 97 appearances for the club almost by accident.

The 24-year-old might have considered a stoppage-time winner against Everton his peak. Not quite. Try the dramatic winning goal against Newcastle to reignite a Premier League title push. Still no. Well two goals against Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final cannot possibly be beaten.

Yet here he stands, a Champions League final goal to go with his Champions League winner’s medal. His strike was as clean and true as Tottenham’s defending of a simple corner was messy and tired. The player who inspired those scenes that were mocked and derided after his late equaliser in a 2-2 draw against West Brom all those years ago has completed both his own and Klopp’s full circle.

 

15) The problem was that Liverpool could afford to play within themselves while Tottenham had to reach their ceiling. To beat City over two legs in the quarter-final was one thing, but overcoming a slightly worse side on a considerably bigger stage was an entirely new challenge.

Perhaps their biggest regret will be the failure to provide one last memory, a consolation goal or even just a moment supporters can look back on in years to come and allow their minds to wander into alternate realities. Any of their eight shots on target will be forgotten by August, their 64.6% possession all for nothing.

Tottenham are the first Champions League finalists to fail to score since Bayern Munich in 2010 in a 2-0 victory sealed by first and second-half goals from the more experienced, streetwise Inter Milan. History has a tendency to repeat itself eventually. But this is worth reiterating: they absolutely have to maximise this unlikely platform. Now is the time to think about what could still be rather than what might have been.

 

16) It also says something that Liverpool won each of their knockout ties on aggregate, while Tottenham overcame their quarter and semi-final opponents on away goals. This was one battle of attrition too far.

For Liverpool, a phenomenal campaign is rewarded with something tangible. The effect of this win should not be downplayed: defeat really would have felt catastrophic after last season, this season and considering the opposition. The monkey is off their backs and they can carry on climbing.

There is no reason not to look ahead 12 more months with genuine excitement. The Premier League will surely be their main objective, but only three clubs have ever reached a hat-trick of consecutive Champions League finals. Liverpool should have that target in mind. After all, they’ve been to the Ataturk Stadium before…

Matt Stead

 

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