The Champions League final has always meant more than just a game. Underlying themes woven into the fabric of the showpiece occasion make it as much of a spectacle as the football itself. On Saturday, the 64th summit clash of Europe’s premier cup competition presents itself as a story of resurrection.
Wanda Metropolitano, Atlético Madrid’s shiny, brand spanking new home, wasn’t always fit to host the biggest game in club football. Formerly known as the Estadio de la Comunidad de Madrid, the stadium was built in anticipation of the Spanish capital hosting the Olympics. As multiple bids from the city failed and the site continued to bleed cash, the stadium was closed in 2004.
In 2013, the venue was rescued by Atléti, who were looking for a new home. Four years later, they made the move north from the beloved but ageing Vicente Calderón. Now a 68,000-seater, €240 million work of art, the Metropolitano is a proverbial phoenix from the ashes, much like the sides that will take its pitch tonight.
The 5-times winners have taken the long road back to the final a year on from their 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid. Much of the summer and the season that has followed has been about righting the wrongs of the debacle of Kiev.
Spurred on by missing out on the big prize, the Reds hit the market aggressively. They spent big and wrapped up their business early, heading into the post-World Cup pre-season having stolen a march on their rivals in the race to close the gap on Manchester City.
Jürgen Klopp’s side began the Premier League campaign on fire but faltered in Europe in a reversal of fortunes from the year before. While the might of Anfield pushed them to a last-gasp win against Paris Saint-Germain and a 4-0 rout of Red Star Belgrade, it was a different tale on the road. Three straight away defeats left them with a small mountain to climb in the final group stage game. Fortunately, the fight was on their own patch.
Mo Salah and Alisson came up clutch as Liverpool delivered yet another memorable European night at Anfield. The 1-0 win was enough to see them through to the Round of 16 where a clash against Bayern Munich was on the cards.
It was around the time of their matchup that Liverpool’s domestic form took a hit. A series of draws allowed Manchester City to make up lost ground at the top of the League table. Klopp’s men betrayed a few hints of the pressure on them as, for once, they failed to light up Anfield in the Champions League in a flat goalless draw against Bayern in the first leg.
Still, with Virgil van Dijk back in the starting eleven for the trip to the Allianz Arena, Liverpool backed themselves to get rid of their travel sickness in the competition. They did so in style, a fine Sadio Mané brace and towering van Dijk header leading them to a comfortable 3-1 win.
Having come up against some tough opposition in Europe, Liverpool were relieved to be drawn with Porto in the last eight. And for good reason too, as they brushed the Portuguese champions aside without breaking a sweat, much as they did last season. There were far bigger matters at hand, with a titanic clash on the horizon.
By the time the tie against Barcelona approached, Liverpool had lost control of the Premier League title race. And perhaps the increased desperation for the Champions League crown showed, as they uncharacteristically folded in the wake of a Lionel Messi masterclass at the Camp Nou. 3-0 down, and all but out.
Jose Mourinho declared on air before the second leg that if there was one setting for a remontada to occur, it was on a European night at Anfield. Even in the absence of Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Naby Keïta, there was a tangible sense of belief in the air around L4. It was almost as if they knew what was coming.
The latest and greatest European night in Liverpool’s history unfolded as Messi watched on in disbelief at the ground beneath him and his Barcelona teammates crumbled. Reeling from the moment Divock Origi’s early goal hit the back of the net, the Catalans never recovered. Liverpool’s unlikely Belgian hero finished them off with a clever corner routine courtesy of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s genius to complete the astonishing turnaround.
Now comes the small matter of going one better than the year before. Considering that it was in October 2015 that Klopp got his first taste of English football against Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs, it’s only fitting for him to come up against them in the biggest night of his career.
Klopp’s men have the psychological advantage over their opponents having done the double over them in the League. Both games were close affairs though, and if anything, allow Spurs to address their weaknesses. While Liverpool will almost certainly line up in their preferred 4-3-3, Spurs have a few more iterations up their sleeve, having used more players over the course of the season.
Like Liverpool, the North Londoners were written off in the group stages after losses to Inter, Barcelona and an away draw to PSV in their opening 3 games. Tottenham’s fate in the tournament was out of their hands heading into the last matchday. Inter’s draw to PSV and a late Lucas Moura goal at the Camp Nou meant that the eventual finalists sneaked through to the knockout stages on goal difference.
After expertly handling runaway German leaders Borussia Dortmund, thanks to a Jan Vertonghen masterclass and a Harry Kane goal in the first and second legs respectively, the side faced fellow English side Manchester City, a side like Tottenham, known to possess a weak mentality in the competition among other things. Both these teams did not have a great track record in the competition, but the gulf of quality could easily be measured between the two sets of players.
While Manchester City had riches of talent and depth in each position within their squad, Spurs had to deal with huge injury blows, such as those to Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko. With limited numbers at their disposal, Tottenham had to dig deep in their reserves to fire through this special City side, resulting in one of the greatest knockout matches in Champions League history. Five goals in a frantic opening 20 minutes, a goal given by VAR, a goal scrapped by VAR – when the dust settled, the 4-4 scoreline on aggregate meant that Spurs progressed to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history.
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Another similarly miraculous story ensued when they faced the amazing Ajax of Amsterdam in the semi-finals. A 2-0 loss would have meant that the side bowed out of the Champions League with their head held high, for fans had written them off since day one – it seemed as if the side were clearly punching above their weight and had finally met their match. It would have been an inspiring story nonetheless; the brave and valiant Tottenham Hotspur, under the tutelage of Mauricio Pochettino had already overachieved in terms of expectations. Discontinuing the conventional custom of splashing the cash on players and transfers, Spurs had shown unbelievable character and passion to reach this level, much like their opponents in the penultimate stage of the competition.
A grueling, gripping conclusion to the tie with an inspirational second-half hat-trick from Lucas Moura fired the side into one of the most stunning and unanticipated fixtures on the biggest stage, in the biggest club competition in world football. It was to be Liverpool vs Tottenham Hotspur in the final of the UEFA Champions League.
Spurs have had to resort to a concentrated core of players in their road to the final, injuries to Dele Alli, Sissoko, Wanyama, Kane and the departure of Mousa Dembele meant that the squad was heavily reliant on Winks, Moura, Llorente, and Heung-Min Son due to its reduced size. Doubts have been raised about Kane’s readiness for such a big game, owing to the lack of game time he has had in the last two months.
The sheer will and pace of Son and Lucas Moura will be threatening to the almost-impenetrable Liverpool defence. With the entire first team deemed to be fit for the first time in the season, it is expected that Spurs will play to their strengths. The side has mastered the art of breaking on the counter, supplying balls by their expertly capable centre-backs. Christian Eriksen orchestrating in midfield, and Alli’s penchant of getting into and attacking in the box is to be expected.
The defensive titan that is Virgil van Dijk would be expected to cancel out Llorente’s aerial threat and his lack of pace; but the Spaniard can be called upon to salvage something deep into the game, much as he has did to devastating effect up against Matthijs de Ligt in the semi-final second leg.
The threat of Mo Salah and Sadio Mané will be the most threatening aspect for the Tottenham defence. Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier have a tendency to play in an advanced role, especially in Pochettino’s preferred 4-4-2 diamond formation. While their attacking qualities might be one of the best in the league, they can be defensively suspect, not an option with Salah and Mané playing off their shoulders. It should be interesting to see how Eriksen, Alli, and Sissoko fare against the opposition midfield of Fabinho, Wijnaldum, and Henderson, specialists in ball retention and neutralising the opposition attacks.
With just a League Cup title each between them for the last part of the decade, both sides find themselves in touching distance of the big one, the biggest one in the eyes of some. Spurs have thirsted to step out of their London neighbours’ shadows, while Liverpool want just reward for a scintillating season. Having resurrected themselves time and again, it will be fascinating to see who has it in them to fight the fight one last time.
Feature Image via Goal.com
Wijnaldum image via Sportsnet
Moura image via The Independent