By Padraig O’Callaghan – @AGameOfTwoHalfz
Five-time winners Liverpool take on English rivals Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid this coming Saturday, in the most prestigious, coveted fixture in club football, The Champions League Final.
Liverpool head into this fixture as strong favourites due to the experience the team acquired during last season’s competition as well as this year. Just over 14 years ago Liverpool won the competition for the fifth time, placing them third on the least of the most decorated clubs in the competition, behind A.C Milan (7) and last season’s victors Real Madrid (13).
Tottenham Hotspur made it to the final against all odds. For a team who hasn’t spent a penny in the transfer market for three windows and an injury hit squad to get this far is a noteworthy achievement and a testament to the work undertaken by Mauricio Pochettino.
Tottenham’s journey to the final – Group Stage
Tottenham had a remarkably similar European campaign to Liverpool. Their hopes of progressing from the group stage were hanging by a thread after amassing a single point from their first three games. Winning eight from a possible nine saw them progress through the group, just.
On the first matchday Tottenham travelled to Milan to face Inter. Christian Eriksen looked to have scored the winner, scoring from the edge of the box which took a slight deflection, but two goals in five minutes from Mauro Icardi and Matias Vecino at the death flipped proceedings which left the Lilywhites with nothing to show for their efforts.
Their next game saw Barcelona visit town and Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic gave the Catalans a comfortable lead before half time. Harry Kane gave them hope with a tidy finish, but that hope was quickly extinguished when Lionel Messi restored their two-goal lead. Eric Lamela brought Tottenham within one just eight minutes later, but it was nothing more of a consolation as Messi grabbed his second and Barcelona’s fourth deep into stoppage time.
Their third and fourth matchdays saw them play Dutch side PSV, two matches ideal for picking up maximum points and put them back into the mix with Inter and Barca – or so they thought.
The first of the two ties saw Tottenham travel to Netherlands, an early Hirving Lozano goal was quickly cancelled out by Lucas Moura before Kane gave them a much-needed lead. A moment of stupidity from Hugo Lloris saw Tottenham reduced to 10 men. PSV started to mount pressure on the Spurs’ goal, which eventually paid off, Luuk de Jong flicking on a shot from Pablo Rosario to bring PSV level.
Their home tie against the Dutch didn’t get off to the greatest start, with de Jong giving the Dutch side an early lead which really mounted the pressure on Pochettino and co. For 75 minutes Tottenham rallied on but to no avail. Step-up Harry Kane, the English striker gave them hope slotting hope from Llorente’s lay-off.
In the 89th minute the Englishman scored the winner. A cross from Ben Davies found Kane in the box whose header was deflected into the net to give Tottenham three much-needed points. Inter picked up a point in their game against Barcelona which meant the gap between the two sides was cut to three points.
For Tottenham to progress to the knock stages, they had to beat Inter in the next game and match or better the Italian side’s result in the final game.
The most important game for Tottenham in the group stages saw Inter visit Wembley. Anything other than a win was not good enough – a draw would see the gap remain the same while a defeat would dump them out of the competition.
Both sides had opportunities to score a decisive goal. Milan Skriniar and Ivan Perisic failed to find the target when in good positions whilst Moura and Jan Vertonghen were expected to score when both only had the goalkeeper to beat.
It was Eriksen who once again broke the deadlock, as a good passage of play saw Dele Alli set up the Dane, who slotted past Handanovic to give them a vital lead. This brought Tottenham level on points level points and ahead of Inter due to scoring at the San Siro giving them a better head to head record.
Tottenham had a huge task ahead of their sixth matchday – with Inter likely to beat PSV it meant they had to go to the Nou Camp and win. Barca played a weakened side having progressed but took the lead through Ousmane Dembele. Lucas Moura levelled late on, though, while Inter could only muster a point at home to PSV meaning it was Spurs who progressed against the odds.
Tottenham’s journey to the final – Knockout Stages
Tottenham were drawn against Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16. Many thought this would be an evenly-contested tie, but it was over after the first leg was played. Son Heung-min, Vertonghen and Fernando Llorente gave the Lilywhites a comfortable 3-0 which they further extended in Germany where Kane scored the only goal to make it 4-0 on aggregate.
Tottenham only averaged 47% possession over the two legs which shows they can play in quite a similar way to what Liverpool did last season – hitting their opponents on the counter.
Hitting their opponents on the counter is exactly what they did against Manchester City in the quarter-finals, with Son giving them a slender lead going into the second leg. Aguero had the chance to put City ahead from the spot early on but Hugo Lloris saved.
The second leg was quite a spectacle. Five goals in the opening 20 minutes saw City take a 3-2 advantage, while both of Spurs’ goals came from counter attacks signalling their intent. Aguero put city ahead in the tie for the first time early in the second half before Llorente scored a vital third away goal. In the dying seconds Raheem Sterling thought he had won it, but the referee went to VAR and it was disallowed for offside, sending Tottenham into the semi-finals.
Ajax separated Tottenham from a trip to Madrid. The Dutch side had proven to be the dark horses of the competition, beating Real Madrid and Juventus.
They seemed to be heading to the final when Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech added to Donny van de Beek’s first leg goal, putting them 3-0 up on aggregate. Lucas Moura scored two quick goals early on in the second half to make things interesting and, just as all hope was lost, the Brazilian completed his hat-trick to send Tottenham through with virtually the last kick of the game.
Mauricio Pochettino is still waiting on the fitness of Harry Kane and Harry Winks whilst Jan Vertonghen has returned to full training this week.
New UEFA rules allows the manager to name 12 players on the bench so, if Kane and Winks aren’t fully match fit, Pochettino should have no second thoughts about putting them on the bench.
Both players have missed action since the start of April, two months without playing in a competitive match is a long time and with such high stakes in the final it would be a risky choice to start them.
Kane would make a good impact substitute if Tottenham are behind whilst Winks can be brought on to shore things up of they are ahead. To play the two would be a massive risk and could waste two substitutions. In a final when every small detail matters, it could play a key part in which side are to come out victorious.
Hugo Lloris will start in goal – the French goalkeeper has played in a couple of finals in his career, most notably the World Cup. He often blows hot and cold throughout a match and is susceptible to a mistake, but he is an excellent shot-stopper and is capable of real magic.
With limited midfield options available Pochettino may have to revert to a back three, something which plays into Liverpool hands. Two of their three centre backs have missed a couple of games with Toby Alderweireld the only defender to be match fit. Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen missed Spurs’ last league game and have only returned to training recently.
A lack of fit midfield options will see Christian Eriksen start next to Moussa Sissoko. Dele Alli will play just ahead in a free-roaming playmaker role with Son Heung-min and semi-final hero Lucas Moura in a front two, if Kane is deemed not fit enough to start.
Jurgen Klopp is only without one of his senior players in Naby Keita, who failed to overcome his groin injury in time for the final. Firmino shrugged off a similar ailment and should make the bench at least. Klopp has shown an unwillingness to play players unless they are 100% fit, but as it’s Bobby I think he will start.
Alisson Becker will hope to cap off an excellent debut season with a strong performance, winning the Premier League golden glove as well as producing a string of excellent performance in Europe.
Trent and Robertson registered 25 assists in all competitions this season between them. Their crosses will be important as ever and, if we are to score, chances are one of these two had something to do with it.
Joel Matip’s spot in the side should remain uncontested. Dejan Lovren and Joe Gomez are both good options to play next to Virgil van Dijk, but the Cameroonian’s consistent performances in the second half of the season should earn him a place in the side.
Fabinho and Jordan Henderson are dead certs to start in midfield and, due to a strong performance against Barcelona, it will probably be Georginio Wijnaldum who gets the nod ahead James Milner, who will prove to be a versatile option off the bench.
The usual front three of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah will likely start, with the latter pair in excellent from for the past few weeks. Sadio lead the team against Barcelona and Salah will be hoping to make amends for last seasons final. Both will play a huge part in winning the game.
Roberto Firmino’s inclusion from the start depends on fitness, but Divock Origi would prove a more-than-able deputy. The Belgian was sensational against Barcelona and has popped up with a few important goals this season. Does he have one more in the locker?
Liverpool are clear favourites between the two clubs due to the experience in the competition and the fact that 25 points separated the two clubs in the league. They have only lost once against Tottenham since Jurgen Klopp was announced as manager.
I can continue spurting out facts to affirm the fact that we are favourites, but at the end of the day what has happened between the clubs mean nothing. Nothing that has happened between the two clubs in the past will define the 90 minutes that will separate the clubs and the players from legendary status.
Tottenham’s style of play may prove to be their downfall – like Liverpool of last season they don’t have the personal to control a game. Harry Winks comes the closest, but he should only make the bench. Their style of play only works once you have the lead.
Liverpool have come back from behind multiple times this season. They won the most points from losing positions in the Premier League, so if we do go behind I still wouldn’t panic. We have better players all over the pitch and some of Tottenham’s star players are lacking match fitness, something that could hamper their efforts in the latter stages of the game.
I think Liverpool will come out on top between the two. Mané and Salah will be too much for Tottenham’s defence, whilst our midfield will dominate theirs, Son and Lucas are a dangerous attacking pair, but our defence has been solid for a while now, so I wouldn’t be too worried.
Son is their most dangerous player and can score from anywhere around the box. Being right footed, he will be inclined to play on Matip’s side but with Fabinho sitting in front the Korean will likely be forced to drop a little bit deeper to receive the ball stifling his attacking threat.
Whatever happens, the teams that missing out will feel hard done by their impressive campaign. May the best team win.
Predited final score: Tottenham Hotspur (Eriksen) 1 – 3 Liverpool (Mané x2, Van Dijk)