Tottenham Hotspur v Liverpool
UEFA Champions League final
Saturday June 1st, Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, kick off 8pm
By John Spillane
Two coaches, one Argentinian, the other German, bring their clubs to Madrid for the second all English Champions League final, in search of a trophy to further cement their reputations among the game's elite. For Tottenham, UEFA cup winners back in 1984, it's a new experience, but for five time winners Liverpool it's an opportunity to make up for last season's disappointment when they lost 3-1 to reigning champions Real Madrid in Kiev.
Having gone out in the semi final of the 2017 & 2018 FA Cup as well as the 2019 Carabao Cup Tottenham have at least have gone one step further this time in reaching a final, their first since the 2015 Carabao Cup defeat to Chelsea. For Mauricio Pochettino's side though progress to this stage has been far from straight forward. Drawn into Group B alongside Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven and Inter Milan going into the final round of games they appeared to be bound for the Europa league. However a late equaliser from Lucas Moura in the Nou Camp combined with Inter failing to get the required win at home to PSV, allowed them to progress on the away goals rule from their head to head with the Italians (H) 0-0, (A) 1-1. In the knockout phases Dortmund were despatched with very little fuss (H) 3-0, (A) 1-0, but the next two hurdles didn't come so easy.
In the quarter final tie with Manchester City a 1-0 victory at home in the first leg came courtesy of a Hugo Lloris penalty save and a second half winner from Son Heung-Min. In a dramatic second leg the tie swung one way and then the other, before a VAR decision ruled out what had appeared to be a 93rd minute winning goal for City. In the semi final with Ajax they were three goals down on aggregate in Amsterdam with 36 minutes to play. Without Harry Kane their main source of goals, five in Champions league, all seemed lost before the unlikely hero, Lucas Moura again, hit a hat trick, bringing his total to five in the competition. The decisive winning strike coming in the 95th and final minute.
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For much of the season Tottenham kept pace with Manchester City and Liverpool domestically. Unfortunately they failed to match the relentless pace of their rivals and league form fell away over the latter months of the season, picking up 11 points from their final 12 games, (W3, D2, L6) with their only victories coming at home to Huddersfield, Brighton and Crystal Palace. From a position of strength they just about hung on to finish in fourth place and qualification for next season's Champions league, 26 points in arrears of their opponents, losing 12 games more. The three week break since the Premier league finished has provided them with a chance to recuperate. Star striker Kane, who hasn't played since the quarter final on April 9th, has been continuing his recovery from injury and now hopes to come under consideration for a place in Madrid. Does Pochettino hold him in reserve and attack Liverpool with pace or can he trust that his star striker, top scorer at last summer's World Cup, is match ready?
12 months on from defeat in the final Jurgen Klopp's side arrive this time as favourites. Having overcome Barcelona in the semi final another second place finish, after going so close in the league, would be hard to take. For Klopp this will be be his eighth major final since 2012, and having started with a victory has since lost six in a row, including all three with Liverpool (Carabao Cup and Europa league 2016, as well as the Champions league 2018).
Liverpool started their campaign in Group C with PSG, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade. After a few slip ups, losing all three away ties, they required a home victory over Napoli in their final game to progress ahead of the Italians, on goals scored. Having been held 0-0 by Bayern Munich at Anfield they won 3-1 in Germany, prior to overcoming Porto 6-1 on aggregate in the last eight. The remarkable semi final second leg recovery, after losing 3-0 in Barcelona, came courtesy of two goals each from the unexpected sources of Gino Wijnaldum and Divock Origi.
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The addition this season of Alisson Becker in goal has helped tighten up the defence and the crosses from out wide provided by full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold (12 assists in league & 4 in Champions league) and Andy Robertson (11) have been a welcome addition. Mohamed Salah, who went off injured a year ago, and Sadio Mane (scorer in Kiev) will be the primary goal threats. The hope is that Roberto Firmino, who provides much of the link work between midfield and attack, will be fit to start.
Along the way the two teams have had their worrying moments on the road to Madrid. Now that they've got there both will think that this is their year. Opportunities on the big stage do not come around often for most and it will be down to who performs best on the day, remembering that the star players in the semi finals (Moura, Llorente, Origi and Wijnaldum) were all unlikely heroes. For both sides the full backs provide much of the attacking width and will need to be watched at all times.
Liverpool who beat Tottenham home and away in the league 2-1 this season currently have the upper hand between the two. In a final contested between this season's comeback kings, for Tottenham this is bonus territory. Liverpool in contrast, making their ninth appearance on this stage, will feel like that they are ready to win. That attitude, belief and confidence could be the deciding factor. If they get off to their traditional fast start they could go on to win comfortably.
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