Uefa Champions League trophy. (Photo: Alamy)
Uefa Champions League trophy. (Photo: Alamy)

Champions League 2019: And then there were two

  • Which team will triumph in the finale of the world’s biggest club tournament?
  • Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur pulled off stunning comebacks to set up an all-English Champions League final in Madrid.

NEW DELHI : On 1 June, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will be facing off at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid for the Champions League final. The first all-English affair since the 2007-08 season, the Champions League got its two finalists over two nights of intense drama when Liverpool and Spurs completed spectacular comebacks on the nights of 7 and 8 May, respectively, leaving their players in tears and managers breathless.

“I will remember this night forever," said Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp. “I think it’s one of the most important nights of my life," said Mauricio Pochettino of Spurs.

They were certainly momentous occasions, in large part due to the fact that neither club was a favourite going into the second leg of the semi-finals. Barcelona had defeated Liverpool 3-0 at the Camp Nou, while Spurs had been beaten by a solitary away goal by Ajax Amsterdam. While Liverpool’s rousing rout of the Catalan club in the return leg at Anfield was nothing short of one of the greatest comebacks in Champions League history, Spurs’ last-minute win over Ajax was almost as impressive. And so now, a season of tense, bruising football contests has thrown up two finalists who weren’t favourites back in August. Spurs will be appearing in their first-ever European Cup final, while this will be Liverpool’s second successive appearance.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.

These are two clubs with profoundly different European histories. Liverpool fans like to remind people that their club is “European royalty". There’s good reason for that. The Merseyside club have appeared in the finals of the competition nine times, and have won it on five of those occasions. They are tied with Barcelona and Bayern Munich on five wins, behind only AC Milan, who have won it seven times, and Real Madrid, who have won it a staggering 13 times.

The furthest Spurs have gone before in Europe’s premier club competition, on the other hand, was in the 2010-11 season, when they lost 5-0 in aggregate to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals. But histories matter only to a point. Of more importance are Klopp and Pochettino, two men who have worked patiently with their clubs over a number of years (three and a half for Klopp, five for Pochettino) to bring them where they are today.

Power and precision

The semi-final games were emblematic of the way Liverpool and Spurs are set up. Both teams’ tactics have their genesis in the possession-based, short-passing, false-number-nine, aggressive-pressing style that was popularized by Pep Guardiola’s illustrious Barcelona side between 2008-12. Better known as tiki-taka after the constant passing patterns that were key to midfield mastery, this approach was also used by the Spanish national team to devastating effect when they won two European Championships and the World Cup between 2008-12.

However, as several other sides, including the post-Guardiola Barcelona, discovered, being effective at tiki-taka requires supremely technically gifted players at every position, playing at a high level of collective brilliance. It was difficult to sustain, and without the requisite wit and invention, became an exercise in stale possession.

Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund, and now Liverpool, kept the possession, the false-number nine, and building play by passing from the back, but ramped up the high press (Klopp’s famous “gegenpressing") and added a huge dose of physical aggression. Liverpool’s tactics this season have been refined further, with the team playing some breathtaking football, scoring a hatful of goals, and notching one of the best defensive records in Europe. In his preferred 4-3-3 formation, instead of a technically adept midfield, Klopp has gone for the robustness and nous of James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum.

The two wide strikers, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, press opposing defenders aggressively, but also drop back to defend. Central striker Roberto Firmino often retreats into midfield to create space for attacking full-backs to drop into, while also linking midfield to attack. Instead of using a play-making No.10, Klopp’s Liverpool focus on robbing opposition players in their half and make lightning-fast transitions into attack to catch out defenders. The two full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, provide width and crosses, while one of the midfield three, usually Henderson or Fabinho, falls back to form a defensive wall with the two centre-backs, Virgil Van Dijk and Joël Matip.

In this respect, the Barcelona game was a masterclass in the Klopp way. The aesthetes of Barcelona, used to a slower game that depends increasingly on the audacious genius of Lionel Messi to create scoring chances, couldn’t live with the Liverpool press. They lost one-on-one battles, lost second balls, lost headers, and, increasingly rattled, first lost the physical edge, and then, their concentration. Messi’s threat was nullified by surrounding him with at least four players as soon as he got the ball, cutting out passing channels. Tactics aside, Liverpool just wanted it more, and Barcelona were swept aside.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Familiarity breeds success

Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics are not very different from Klopp’s, but the one thing that his Spurs team depends on more is the play-making abilities of Christian Eriksen, a supreme No.10. Ever since the 2016-17 season, when Pochettino hit upon the 4-2-3-1 formation as the one that best expresses his side’s qualities, Spurs haven’t changed much, and their players have become more comfortable with the system. Although they press high, much like Liverpool, when building attacks, they play more through the centre with Eriksen and attacking midfielder Dele Alli to create scoring chances for strikers Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. Against Ajax, Kane was injured, so reserve striker Lucas Moura had to fill in. And he did his job with aplomb. Moura’s second-half hat-trick had everything one might want in a striker—power, precision and a degree of luck. He linked up with Son and Alli very well all evening. Given the likelihood that Kane’s injury will prevent him from starting the final, Pochettino will need Moura and Son to be at their best against Liverpool.

Tottenham’s progress to the final has been all the more remarkable because this is the same squad that has played together through two seasons. While this has taken its toll on mainstays like Kane, it has also resulted in an almost telepathic understanding between the players. This is something that played to Tottenham’s favour against Ajax. The young Dutch side stunned Spurs with two classy goals in the first half, leaving them with a mountain to climb. They also cut out any route to Eriksen and Alli, rendering Spurs toothless. Pochettino reacted by playing Eriksen as a deep-lying playmaker in the second half, and, soon enough, the ball started reaching strikers Moura, Fernando Llorente and Son with greater frequency. This might be needed against Liverpool too, as their game plan would be similar to that of Ajax. But while Llorente was excellent at winning aerial duels in the Ajax half, it will be more difficult against a Liverpool defence marshalled brilliantly by Van Dijk.

Much will depend on Moura reprising his semi-final heroics against Liverpool. At his best, the Brazilian is a classic poacher, as his goals against Ajax testify. Liverpool do leave some holes in the back while attacking, and if Eriksen can manage to free Son or Alli on either flank, Moura would be the perfect candidate to run through the middle for a cut-back.

A tense final

The Champions League, one of the world’s most popular sporting spectacles, is a testament to the steamrolling power of capitalism. Super-clubs with millions in revenue, funded by petro-states and multinational corporations, boasting of the world’s best and most expensive players, do undermine the narrative of football being the “people’s game". However, this is somewhat mitigated by teams such as Liverpool and Tottenham, which, despite being mega-rich corporate entities, remain sensibly run, with a solid base in local supporters, and dependent on astute coaching and tactics for success. Neither has won much in the past decade, but both offer a compelling narrative of the joys of permanence and continuity in the high churn of elite football.

In all likelihood, the one-off final will not be as high on pyrotechnics and drama as the two-legged semi-finals were. In fact, the competition’s penultimate games are where the drama usually peaks. The final is often a more tense affair of incremental attrition and nerves, with one or two moments of quality or ineptitude settling the outcome. However it pans out, it is highly unlikely to disappoint.

You can watch the Champions League Final on Sony Six in India. Live telecast from 12.30 am, 2 June.

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