When the Champions League semi-final draw was made, there were very few football fans out there who gave either Liverpool or Tottenham a realistic chance of making it to the final. After their respective first legs, fewer fans would have given them any chance. But in two successive nights of miraculous football, both Liverpool and Tottenham overcame first-leg deficits, and seemingly insurmountable odds to reach the final in Madrid on Saturday night. As both of the teams showed in their semifinal second legs, this final means everything for their seasons.
Tottenham started the season with a squad that played the most number of minutes in last year’s FIFA World Cup. They did not make any significant signings. They went deep in domestic cups and till the first week of January, were being mentioned as the third horse of the title race. Despite these challenges, smart squad management and pure force of will has brought them to a juncture that few Spurs fans would have thought of at the start of the season. They had one of the toughest draws, some of the toughest knockout opponents, and yet here they are – one win away from glory. Pochettino has inspired this limited squad to reach these heights and they will need to be inspired one last time this season on Saturday night because like most of their opponents in Europe this season, their opponent in final is a tough one.
The morning after his side lost the Champions League final last year, Jurgen Klopp was seen bouncing and singing with some fans. The chant started with “We Saw the European Cup” and ended with “Well bring it back to Liverpool”. After a first-leg 0-3 deficit to Barcelona in the semifinal, this might have seemed like one of many Klopp antics. But, a roaring Anfield and a prowling Klopp inspired the Reds to deny Barcelona any goals in the second leg and any chance of progressing to the final. Klopp’s “f**ing mentality giants” have given themselves a second chance in two years to make that song come true. This time, they seem better prepared as well. Alisson in goal is a far cry from a healthy Karius, let alone a dazed one. Dejan Lovren will start the game on the bench and Fabinho, not Lallana, will be prowling in the midfield. Liverpool come into this game as favourites, which has not been the case in their last three final losses. Despite all this, Liverpool would do well to remember that they are against one of their top rivals in England and they need to show the hunger they have shown against Napoli and Barcelona to make sure Klopp’s song comes true.
- Liverpool are playing in their ninth European Cup/ Champions League final – more than any other English side. They have emerged victors five times but have been on the losing side in the previous two final appearances in 2018 and 2007.
- Tottenham are playing their first ever European Cup/ Champions League final and are the eighth different English side to do so. They are also the 40th club in Europe to reach the final. The last five first-time finalists have ended on the losing side.
- The only previous meeting between Tottenham and Liverpool in a major final was in the 1982 English League Cup final, with the Reds coming from behind to win 3-1 after extra-time. Liverpool also won both the Premier League games against Spurs this season, with identical 2-1 score lines.
- This is Jurgen Klopp’s third major European final with Liverpool. Only Bob Paisley (4) has reached more finals with the Reds. This is also Klopp’s third Champions League final appearance and he has lost on both previous occasions. Liverpool fans will hope that Klopp does not equal Marcello Lippi’s record of three successive Champions League final losses.
- For both Liverpool and Tottenham, the English League Cup was their last silverware – in 2012 for Liverpool and in 2008 for Tottenham. Liverpool have lost four finals since then – two domestic and two in Europe. Tottenham has lost two domestic finals since 2008.
- Going by history, both sides have favourable indications. Liverpool lost the final last year, so unless they match Valencia’s record from 2000 and 2001 finals, they will consider themselves in with a good chance. Tottenham have reached the final despite not winning a game out of the first three in the group stage. The last team to do that – Inter – won the final in 2010.
- Mauricio Pochettino is the third Spurs manager to lead them to a European final after Bill Nicholson and Keith Burkinshaw. It is the second final that the Argentine has reached, the League Cup final against Chelsea in 2015 being the other instance.
Harry Kane’s season was supposed to be over with the ankle injury he sustained seven weeks ago. But his side miraculously persevered on to reach the final without him and now he has declared himself fit and joined the full training. It must be a pleasing sight for Pochettino as Kane provides that edge that will be required to take the fight over to Liverpool.
Kane has scored five and assisted one goal in 8 appearances in the Champions League this season, averaging a goal contribution every 115 minutes. The injury also limited his Premier League tally to 17 goals scored and 4 assisted for this season but it is fair to say that Kane is the biggest attacking threat that Spurs have.
Sadio Mane will be chasing some personal glory on Saturday night. He scored the only goal for Liverpool in last year’s final against Real Madrid and could become only the second player to score in back-to-back finals since Franz Roth with Bayern Munich in 1975 and 1976. He could also become the second Reds player to score in multiple European Cup/Champions League finals after Phil Neal (1977 and 1984).
But, even if he was unaware of these milestones, he is one of the biggest threats for Spurs. Of players to have scored at least 10 Champions League goals, Sadio Mane has scored the highest percentage of them (71.4%, 10/14) in knockout stages. In 12 European appearances this season, he has scored four times and assisted one goal, meaning he has contributed a goal every 212 minutes. If that seems meek, he has not scored in his last 180+ minutes (against Barcelona). While Spurs will be (rightly) focused on Salah, Mane can sneak in a goal or assist, along with important touches in the penalty area.
Spurs had started the season with a side that played the most in last year’s World Cup. So, it is not a surprise that at the end of the season, some of them are struggling for fitness. The three-week break has helped though. Harry Kane has boosted the side by making himself available, but pundits warn against starting with him. If he does start, he will keep either Lucas Moura or Son Heung-Min – the heroes of semis and quarters respectively out of the starting lineup. Harry Winks and Davinson Sanchez have also joined training and could be options for Pochettino. Victor Wanyama will be assessed before the final after suffering a knock in the epic second-leg of the semifinal in Amsterdam. In defence, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will start in the centre, while Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier will be the full-backs.
For Liverpool, Naby Keita is the only player out due to injury. This gives Klopp almost a full squad to choose from, although Firmino might not be fit enough to play the full 90 minutes. The front three in the starting lineup choose themselves as do the defence. Any surprises that Klopp might spring will be in the midfield, where he could leave Milner on the bench and start with Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Henderson.
It is a question of which team has the better defence. In Virgil van Djik and their full-backs, Liverpool have a clear edge over Spurs. The attacks and the midfield are similar but it will be the defenders and the goal-keepers that will make a difference and Liverpool seem to be better in that department. Going by their semifinal performances, both sides will fight tooth and nail for it, unlike the Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal. But, eventually, Liverpool will win their sixth European Cup/ Champions League trophy.
Tottenham 1 – 2 Liverpool