THIS year’s UEFA Champions League is not just about two teams battling for the right to stand astride the European game, it is also about a clash of ideals and a journey of affirmation.
Liverpool, of course, have been here before, all too often if you ask the fans of clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea, but the premier European trophy has defined the club to such an extent that nobody is ever surprised if they reach the final.
Liverpool showed the rest of English football how to win the European Cup – four triumphs between 1977 and 1984 – and the events at one of their finals, some 34 years ago, were the catalyst for the barren period between 1984 and 1999 when English clubs fell behind their European peers. The club is therefore indelibly linked with the drama, the excitement, the intrigue and the tragedy of European club football.
Tottenham, by contrast, are desperately seeking entry to a unique group, the chance to show that the ethos by which they have lived and performed over the past five years can win prizes as well as praise. Many believe that Spurs have the right approach to the game, creating an irresistible mix of youth development and good scouting to create a model that more people should take a closer look at. Of course, it is a concept that has its limitations, but they are 90 minutes (or more probably 120 minutes) away from demonstrating that more prudent financial structures can be competitive after all.
For the managers, arguably two of the most popular in the Premier League, the final represents the chance to gild the lily, to gain endorsement for two of the most entertaining and exciting teams in Europe. Everyone seems to like Jürgen Klopp, and rightly so. Dislike of Liverpool (born out of jealousy as much as anything else) has become tempered by Klopp being their manager. His demeanour, sound-bites, intelligence and exceedingly white teeth make him immediately amiable. Furthermore, his team plays extremely watchable football and nobody could fail to be moved by the way Liverpool overcame a 3-0 deficit to beat Barcelona, Messi and all.
Similarly, Mauricio Pochettino has become a highly coveted manager who will doubtless get offers from the Spanish-speaking football world in the coming months. Spurs and Pochettino need a trophy, probably more so than Liverpool. For years, they have won admirers and envious glances for the way they go about their business, but silverware has so far eluded them. On the face of it, they are not favourites in Madrid, but given this final has a domestic flavour (even if only in the names of the clubs and the fans), there is no element of surprise – both teams will know everything about each other, which could result in a little “familiarity breeds contempt”.
Liverpool really could not have done much more in pursuit of the Premier League and given they led the league longer than anyone else (i.e. City), there may be some anxiety if things don’t go their way from the start of the game. Part of the neurosis surrounding Liverpool may be down to the fact that next season it will be 30 years since they were last champions – the longest spell in the club’s history without a league title. After such an intense period of domination, there is a generation of Reds’ fans that have never experienced the club topping the table at the end of a season. There have been moments when they felt they were close, notably in 2014 under Brendan Rodgers, but the current Liverpool team, from the view of neutrals and rivals, is the most credible. It was their misfortune that, when they finally built a worthy side, they had to contend with Manchester City.
But even if they lose to Tottenham, Liverpool have delighted so many people this season and their fans should remember that if they go home from Madrid crestfallen and beamoaning the injustice of finishing empty-handed. Nobody has a right to success, even those teams that do win the people’s vote, but any team that gets to the Champions League final is there on merit, so two clubs can arguably claim to “deserve” success.
Tottenham have not won a thing since 2008, but there is a school of thought that we are witnessing the start of a club shifting gear, an attempt to move above rivals like Arsenal, Chelsea and even Manchester United. While these three clubs appear to have mislaid their mojo (Chelsea’s Europa League win restored some lustre to south-west London, but underlined the malaise in the north), Tottenham look like the London club for the future.
It was certainly unfair to claim Spurs are the worst team to reach the Champions League final. Cup competitions can create a team for the moment, as we saw in 2012 with Chelsea and even Liverpool in 2005. With Chelsea, it was the culmination of the first era of Abramovich after a string of semi-finals defeats. For Spurs, this final is really the reward for five years of growth, of entertaining football and the methods of a talented coach.
The team should really now be in its prime. Players like Lloris, Trippier, Rose, Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Sissoko are 28 and older. Son and Moura are 26 and Kane and Dier are 25. Alli is only 23. There are talented youngsters coming up behind them, but Spurs will, at some point, have to dip their toe into the transfer market, which may not be possible with a big debt to service. The time is approaching when they have to fulfil their promise, or risk becoming similar to Arsenal during their decade of stagnation. That’s unlikely to happen, especially if they win in Madrid.
Age of empire
Predicting a winner for this final is difficult, even though Liverpool did finish way ahead of Spurs in the Premier table. The heart says Spurs, the head demands a Liverpool victory. Whatever happens, one manager is going to get the trophy he needs to endorse his methods. In a city that is even more linked to the competition than Liverpool, the need for two of England’s best teams to put on a show is essential. If, as some pundits are predicting, we are about to enter an era of cash-rich Premier domination of Europe, what better place to launch it than the Spanish capital, the scene of the first true European football empire?