“It is a proper European final,” said Jurgen Klopp this week. “It is not a third game against Tottenham. It is a proper European final.”
Well, with all due respect to the great man, it is and it isn’t. Given all that has gone before this season, both in a compelling title race in the Premier League and, especially, at the sensational penultimate stage of the Champions League, it might seem churlish to express any reservation whatsoever about the all-England make-up of tonight’s decider in Madrid.
After all, to get to this day, both Liverpool and Spurs had to overcome tremendous odds and both did so in a way which can’t but have gladdened the hearts of football lovers the world over apart, obviously, from those either wiping away their tears or looking on with bitter envy in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Manchester and that other patch of North London.
The rest of us were just left rubbing our eyes in disbelief, enraptured by football’s enduring ability to restore us to a state of something like childish wonder at the sheer elemental magic of it all.
And, yet, much as I was enthralled by Liverpool coming back from the dead against Barca and Spurs following suit against Ajax, there’s a part of me that will always think it’s much more in keeping with what should be the natural order of things, when the final of Europe’s premier club competition is contested by teams from different countries, as opposed to the seven transplanted national ‘derbies’ — including tonight’s — which have transpired so far this century.
And it’s the same part of me which can’t also help reflecting on the striking anomaly that tonight’s final of what is called the Champions League features sides who haven’t actually known what’s it’s like to be domestic champions for, in Liverpool’s case, 29 years, and in Tottenham’s, 58.
But, then, as they say, it is what it is and we are where we are — have been, indeed, since the old knock-out European Cup was transformed into the new version, complete with round robin component, in 1992. So I guess it’s just me who’s way behind the times, still harking back to a world in which even supporters of League of Ireland teams could dream of a box-office draw in the first round of the European Cup knowing that, should they somehow succeed in defying the odds, they would only be another three home and away ties from making the final.
Mind, I use the word ‘dream’ advisedly. In the first season after my own European Cup baptism, as a young Hoop I could only look on, green and white with envy, as the then reigning League of Ireland champions and Shamrock Rovers’ great rivals, Waterford, drew holders Manchester United in the first round.
The result? (True Blues, if you don’t want to remember, look away now). A 10-2 aggregate win for United, with Denis Law netting a total of seven goals in the two games. For the record, United failed to hold onto their crown as England’s first European overlords that season, eliminated by Milan in the semi-finals, the latter then going on to beat Ajax 4-1 in the final.
That 1969 decider was played in the Santiago Bernabeu and here we are now, 50 years later, with all roads once again leading to Madrid, albeit this time to Atletico’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium. And, for all that I might still harbour a simpleton’s romantic attachment to the way things were a half a century ago, I can’t deny that, bloated and elitist and intermittently boring though the Champions League has become, this year’s competition certainly cannot stand accused of stinting on the utterly sensational.
Before we even reached the stage of those mind-boggling semis, we’d seen Porto fashion a thrilling 4-3 win against Roma, and Manchester United complete a last-minute, VAR-assisted comeback against PSG. There were crucial late, late goals too for Spurs against Eindhoven and Barcelona to ensure progress from their group after a distinctly underwhelming start, while Liverpool beating Bayern Munich 3-1 in Germany after a 0-0 draw in Anfield was definitely a sign of things to come from Jurgen Klopp’s men.
The irony won’t be missed that, as our neighbours tear themselves apart over Brexit, England’s football teams have been engaged this season in something rather more akin to Brentrance, the continent falling at the feet of the Premier League and, signs on it, maybe not just as a once-off visitation. Or as Jurgen Klopp put it this week: “It looks at the moment that it is not unlikely two English teams could be in the final again.”
Or, even four in two finals again, such is the seemingly all-consuming power of the Premier League right now although, to judge by their second-half capitulation against Chelsea in Baku in the Europa League final, it might be a while longer before Arsenal get to sit at either of the two top European tables again.
And it’s not just English football which is riding high on foreign fields. London has provided three of the top four teams in European competition this year and, with Chelsea having already lifted the Europa League, only Liverpool can now prevent the capital doing a notable double.
But, much as Spurs have impressed at the business end of the Champions League, it can’t be forgotten that, overall, they have lost no less than a third of all the competitive games they have played this season, a sobering stat which makes their arrival on the big stage tonight as improbable as it is admirable.
So if form counts for anything, this evening really should see Liverpool erase the residual ache of defeat in last year’s final and the raw pain of once again coming up short in the league, with a victory which would confirm Klopp’s place as a Kop legend, even if bona fide immortality at Anfield will probably have to wait until he can finally bring home that longed-for league title.
And, yet, deep into bonus territory at the end of their own season, Spurs are equipped with enough quality personnel to take advantage of anything less than a characteristically full-on performance by the team which finished 26 points ahead of them in the domestic ratings.
But then, I have to agree with Klopp to this extent: This is not just a third game between Liverpool against Tottenham. This is the Champions League final, at the point of definition where it essentially provides the same test of nerve as the European Cup final of yesteryear.
In a one-off, highest stakes, all or nothing match, played on neutral territory, and especially with VAR now on the case, anything can happen. And, if the season which has led up to this last night is anything to go by, it probably will. Enjoy.