ONLY three times since the UEFA Champions League was formed have both of the previous season’s finalists exited at the round of 16 stage. The structure of the competition is designed to allow the rich to become successful, so that fact should come as no great surprise. The Champions League has become the playground of a handful of clubs – in the past decade, just 11 clubs from four countries have filled the 20 final places.
Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the 2019 finalists, both crashed out this week, raising question marks about the relative strength of the Premier League and also the quality of the two teams. It is unlikely the sides that beat them, Atlético Madrid and RB Leipzig, will win their domestic leagues, so we are not talking about the outstanding teams from Spain and Germany.
Liverpool were beaten in old-skool fashion, the defensive and robust continentals proving too much of an obstacle, while Tottenham were eliminated by a much better team that made the North Londoners look pedestrian, lacking in savvy and out-of-touch with modern tactical trends. It was a tale of four top coaches – Jürgen Klopp was ousted by Diego Simeone’s stubborn “defend in depth” philosophy, while tomorrow’s man, Julian Nagelsmann, made José Mourinho look a little like yesterday’s hero.
Tottenham’s defeat, emphatic and a fair reflection of the gap between the two teams, should signal the start of a serious rebuild at the club. The Mauricio Pochettino era drew to a close with no silverware and with a paper-thin squad. The lack of real strength in depth has been cruelly highlighted this season with Harry Kane and Son, arguably their two best players, on the injury list. Add to that the loss of the excellent Christian Eriksen, and Tottenham look very average, possibly the most ill-equipped team that Mourinho has coached since arriving in Britain in 2004.
Tottenham’s decline this season has been fairly dramatic, although in 2018-19, they lost seven of their last 12 league games and won just twice. Overall, they were beaten 13 times, their worst record since Pochettino arrived at the club. There were other signs that the team may have passed its peak – 71 points was their lowest since 2014-15 and they scored 67 goals, a drop of 19 from 2016-17. Harry Kane, who has been missing for some weeks this season, scored 17 goals in 28 league games in 2018-19, representing 0.61 goals per game. This was his worst ratio since the pre-Pochettino era and his contribution – 25% of Tottenham’s overall tally – was his lowest yet. So, Kane scores less, Spurs score less, Spurs win less frequently. This season, Kane’s goal-per-game ratio is 0.55 and he’s scored 30% of the team’s league goals. He’s still only 26, but Spurs need a fit Kane if they continue to rely on his goals to such a large degree.
It is easy to suggest in hindsight that Spurs’ run to the Champions League final in 2019 was their undoing, that their squad was ill-equipped to run a campaign on all fronts. But it does now appear as though it was the pinnacle of that team’s achievements. In other words, it was the beginning of the end of an era – a Zircon, rather than diamond-encrusted, period of thwarted ambition.
Liverpool’s boardroom will soon welcome the FA Premier League trophy in a week or two, but they said farewell to Champions League with a clumsy defensive display that cost them the tie with Atlético Madrid. The absence of Alisson, their excellent goalkeeper, was key and Adrián had a night to forget, underlining the importance of including two top keepers in your squad. Too often clubs skimp on their goalkeeping cover and it can prove costly. But for Adrián’s shortcomings, Liverpool would have won this tie, for some of their football was outstanding.
Klopp was uncharacteristically sour at the end of the game, admitting that he now realised he was a bad loser, but if Atléti had gone into the game with all guns blazing, they would have been overrun by Liverpool’s intense and relentless style. As it was, their Slovenian goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, was superb and must surely attract Premier League money soon. Oblak has won the prestigious Zamora Trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper with the best record in La Liga, for the past four years. He made nine top saves against Liverpool.
Klopp may not have liked the way Simeone’s team played, but it should come as no surprise. Any team in the same circumstances would have lined-up something like Atléti at Anfield – the two-legged tie system is all about a little bit of shadow-boxing and careful strategy over 180 minutes (or more). Furthermore, Liverpool, in their European heyday, were renowned for pulling off a thoroughly “professional job” in away legs.
Are Liverpool starting to tire? Klopp’s methods must be exhausting and his players have barely taken their feet off the pedal this season. The Premier League has been like a Holy Grail for the club for almost three decades and they are nearing the end of their journey. For teams like Chelsea (FA Cup), Watford (survival) and Atlético Madrid (Champions League), their seasons have hinged, to a certain extent, on these recent games, and therefore they have met Liverpool in a state of high motivation and determination.
Two English teams put in their place and Chelsea almost sure to join them means all eyes will be on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, who meet Real Madrid in the second leg with a 2-1 lead. Barcelona should make it through against Napoli, but this is not the Barca of 2011, or even 2015. Paris Saint-Germain are desperate for UCL success, so maybe Neymar will sign off with the trophy? Bayern look impressive at times and they may attract the smart money. And don’t write off Atlético, who know how to negotiate the latter stages of the competition only too well. As for Liverpool, they will be back next season, perhaps more confident and assured once they have their Premier League medals in their back pockets.