Imagine being considered one of the best single-season teams in the history of your country in a generation, yet have nothing to show for it.
Imagine finishing second to who will be remembered as perhaps the best team in the history of English football, sacrificing domestic cups in the frustrating and fruitless chase of opponents who match you win for win.
Imagine returning to the pre-eminent club championship in all of Europe and coming up short for a second straight year, this time against one of your domestic peers — ones who have taken the mantle of upstarts you held last year in your feel-good story. A stark contrast to the generational giants who you showed the chasm between fantasy and reality 12 months prior.
For all the things Liverpool have dared to dream in a season of almosts and agonising near-misses, the dark horrors of these imaginations can all become a nightmarish reality Saturday if they fail to beat Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final at Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid.
Potential Starting XIs
Liverpool would have won the Premier League title in every season save one with their 97 points accrued in 2018-19, falling only behind the 2017-18 centurion Manchester City squad, and the one that pipped them by one point this term. Their one loss, a 2-1 setback at the Etihad on Jan. 3 with the chance to open a 10-point gap on the now two-time champions, loomed large in addition to a stretch where the Reds dropped eight points in a six-match span with four draws.
That disappointment, though, has been put aside with their run to the Champions League final for a second straight year, highlighted by their jaw-dropping second-leg comeback in the semifinals versus Barcelona in which they overturned a three-goal deficit at Anfield with a 4-0 hiding of Lionel Messi and the Catalan giants despite playing without two of their top-choice attackers in Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.
Save injured midfielder Naby Keita, it appears to be all hands on deck for Jurgen Klopp’s side — Firmino appears fully recovered from the muscle injury that limited him during the league run-in, and Salah is eager to get another crack at the Champions League title after Sergio Ramos’ awkward first-half tackle in the 2018 edition versus Real Madrid cruelly cut short the Egypt international’s time in that match.
“[We are] much more mature. It’s a different side,” Klopp told the club’s official website when asked what the difference was between last year and now. “The good thing with getting older, from all points of view actually, is we are a year older. We have players like Trent who has around 50 games more in his legs, more experience in football and was in different situations more often. We were in the situation last year and the boys performed in that final, it was not that we had no chance in that final against a clear favourite. That was OK, that helped us as well. Last year we were surprised by ourselves a little bit that we were in the final.”
Salah was “held” to 22 goals this term, but the haul was still enough for him to share the Premier League Golden Boot award with teammate Sadio Mane and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Reds, though, were not a one-trick pony when it came to offence in Champions League play as seven different players scored at least two goals.
Salah, Mane, and Firmino paced Liverpool with four each, but centre back Virgil van Dijk proved crucial in set pieces with a pair of goals while Giorginio Wijnaldum and reserve forward Divock Origi also made critical contributions, stepping up in grand fashion to fuel the comeback versus Barcelona.
While Salah has not made this match about a personal redemption story after being reduced to tears as he left the pitch 30 minutes into last year’s final versus Real Madrid, it is very evident he is eager to not only play the full 90 — or 120 if need be — but to play them well.
“I am so happy that I have the chance to play another final. I hope I can play the full game this time,” he told BeIN Sports. “I am very excited for that. I hope we can right what happened last season, get a good result and win the competition.
“This is our second final in a row. We lost the first but everything feels better this time around and we have more experience than last time.”
While Liverpool’s offence has largely remained the same, though Xherdan Shaqiri brings a different dimension off the bench as a winger and dead-ball specialist, it has been the defence that has made all the difference in making them a contender to lift the Champions League trophy for a sixth time.
That starts at the back with Alisson, whom Liverpool paid £67 million to AS Roma for the previous summer. In retrospect, that fee — which stabilised in part beacuse of Brazil’s quarterfinal exit from the World Cup through no fault of Alisson and then was eclipsed by Chelsea’s £72 million shelled out for Kepa Arrizabalaga — still comes across as a bargain given the upgrade the No. 1 has been between the sticks over predecessor Loris Karius, whose nightmarish performance against Real Madrid prompted the search for a new keeper.
He posted five clean sheets in Liverpool’s 12 matches while yielding just 12 goals overall. But statistics aside, Alisson had a knack all season regardless of competition for coming up with the saves Liverpool needed at crucial junctures in games that kept wins from becoming draws and games staying level long enough to become wins as he helped Liverpool improve 22 points from 2017-18 while conceding 16 fewer goals.
“In the 2017-18 season, when Liverpool conceded shots, the shots were very dangerous,” STATS’ Paul Power explained to ESPN. “So Liverpool needed a goalkeeper who was able to cope in one-on-one situations where the defense just completely collapsed and the keeper had to do something amazing. Alisson’s true strengths were that he was able to make these kind of superhuman saves. He would have saved at least seven goals that [Simon] Mignolet or Karius would have conceded.”
Alisson is also helped immensely by van Dijk, who came into his own at centre back regardless of who his partner is — with Joel Matip expected to fill that role Saturday. On the flanks, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold bombed forward regularly and effectively — Alexander-Arnold edged out Roberson for the team lead in assists with 12, setting a Premier League record for a defender, and added a team-best four in Champions League play.
The midfield is where Klopp has a wealth of options, though it was thinned with Keita’s adductor injury suffered in the semifinals versus Barcelona. The expected trio is Fabinho in the middle flanked by the tireless Wijnaldum and talisman Jordan Henderson, with the former emphatically making his case for inclusion in the first XI with his brace off the bench versus Barca, but Milner’s relentless consistency and nerveless penalty taking offers an appealing option.
Liverpool at least had a path they could follow to return to the Champions League final, something that could not be said for Tottenham Hotspur. The north London side are in Europe’s premier club event for the first time in club history, though Spurs did lift the UEFA Cup trophy in 1972 and 1984.
Mauricio Pochettino’s club rode the edge almost the entire length of the Champions League season, overcoming losses in their first two group matches to Inter Milan and Barcelona before recovering for a runners-up finish — Spurs scored goals in the 80th minute or later in all three of their final group matches to progress behind the Catalans.
About the only straightforward advancement came in the round of 16 when they outclassed Borussia Dortmund, but their quarterfinal and semifinal ties versus Manchester City and Ajax caused equal parts spleen-venting, elation, and all the euphoric highs and soul-questioning despair that come with being a football supporter.
“The most important thing is to be ready, to feel the emotion and to be free, to play like when you were young, a child at seven, eight, to play with that freedom,” Pochettino said at his final pre-match press conference. “The key is not to think that there will be one billion people watching you, but to enjoy, to run, to talk together, to help each other, good communication.
“The moment you get to a final it’s about winning the final. We trust ourselves, respect our opponent because Liverpool are a great team, with Manchester City the best in England. One year ago they were in the final and they deserve full credit. Tomorrow it’s about enjoying and trying to win because if we want to try to write history, tomorrow is about winning.”
Tottenham progressed via away goals against both City and Ajax, with their second-leg road matches harrowing and historic encounters. Against the Premier League champions at the Etihad trying to protect a 1-0 advantage, the first 21 minutes turned into anarchy with five goals and created a 3-3 aggregate as Heung-Min Son valiantly kept the dream alive as Spurs persevered without injured talisman Harry Kane.
Spurs then fell behind just before the hour, only to pull level again through Fernando Llorente — a forgotten striker who stepped to the forefront. The Lilywhites appeared to be done for when Raheem Sterling scored late, but VAR correctly adjudged Sergio Aguero to be offsides in the buildup to rescue them.
It was a different forward stepping up in Amsterdam versus Ajax, this time Lucas Moura as he recorded a second-half hat trick to help overturn a 3-0 aggregate deficit in the final 45 minutes. The last of the Brazil international’s goals — coming in the 96th minute — came with what was nearly the last kick of the contest.
“It felt like we were up against it after losing the first game so late at Inter (1-2). Barcelona and Messi in the second game (2-4), he was special that night. PSV away (2-2) was so frustrating. Then Harry’s header goes in off a couple of ricochets to beat PSV and we’re up and running,” left back Ben Davies recounted to the club’s official website.
“These are the moments that can define seasons. It’s funny – we probably played better in the group stage last season, we were flying, but this has been about grit, determination and players have delivered those moments of quality when we’ve needed them. You need that in a cup run.”
The sheer drama of Spurs’ Champions League play allows many to gloss over their fourth-place finish in the Premier League table — after all, it was a two-time race between City and Liverpool — while showcasing the indomitable spirit and will of a side who stunningly stood pat in both transfer windows.
There was a new White Hart Lane to open, after all, so money had to be allocated wisely. With no money allocated for personnel, Pochettino spent weeks at a time making the proverbial chicken salad out of chicken droppings with his injury-forced lineup decisions — when healthy, Spurs ooze quality — and tactical fluidity.
And the result has Tottenham on the verge of capturing Europe’s golden egg — Ol’ Big Ears — for the first time. While everyone talks about the generational chance Ajax squandered with their failure to close out the never-say-die Spurs, one can also point to Tottenham and wonder if they face a similar fate based on the unlikely path trod to Madrid and the uncertain future win or lose.
The uncertainty for this match, however, has centered around the availability of Kane, who has not played for Tottenham since suffering his ankle injury two months ago. The World Cup boot winner feels he is ready to play, giving Pochettino the pleasant selection headache of chemistry versus talent when it comes to his first XI.
Unsurprisingly, Pochettino refused to tip his hand when asked about Kane’s availabity and stressed the importance of the team as well as his top forward.
“It’s not going to be easy taking a decision tomorrow but it was difficult in the last game we played and in the quarter-final and in the semi-final. In every single game we have to make decisions. Tomorrow is another decision,” he said Friday.
“For sure, we have all the information. We know every single detail and we are going to take the best decision to try to win. Always in football it’s so painful when this type of game arrives. You can only use 11 players from the beginning. All decisions are important, but it’s part of my job to select the starting 11 and try to win the game.”
While Pochettino ponders the leader of his line, the back is anchored by keeper Hugo Lloris, whose 12-month whirlwind of highs and lows reaches another crescendo in Madrid. The France No. 1 backstopped Les Bleus to a World Cup title in Russia last summer, but Lloris then had to deal with the embarrassment and fallout of a drink-driving charge.
There was also some spotty play in the Champions League group play, which included a red card for a horrible challenge, yet Lloris — much like the Spurs as a team — has shown a prickly resilience that cannot be discounted and was a key component of his side’s run to the final.
“We went through different types of emotion,” he recounted to the Times of London. “After three games in the group stage, we were almost out. Obviously you prefer to manage the game in your way, but it happened a few times — in the group stage, against City in the second leg, against Ajax. The games went a bit crazy because we didn’t have control, the total control of the opponent, but we showed a lot of character and we showed the right attitude. We kept the belief and it helped us to be in this position today.”
Behind Kane or Son leading the line, Spurs have a dynamic playmaking trio in Moura, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen. While not putting together similar numbers to his breakout 2017-18 of 14 goals and 14 assists — Alli finished with half that number in a challenging term occasionally slowed by injury — playing out of the spotlight may have done his game good for the long-term.
Eriksen continues to be the mercurial genius of the side — the Denmark international has the precision to find the inch-perfect through ball or the seemingly speculative long-range shot that somehow finds the back of the net. And when on song, Moura is capable of many things — evidenced by his hat trick versus Ajax.
Son is also not to be overlooked, with the South Korea international popping up in various spots in the final third to finish in clinical fashion. He has enjoyed a breakout club campaign around his gold medal-winning turn for the Red Devils in the Asian Cup. Son finished with a career-best 20 goals in all competition, trailing only Kane (24).
The trio are protected by central midfielders Victor Wanyama and Moussa Sissoko, though there is a chance Harry Winks could find his way onto the pitch having fully recovered from groin surgery five weeks ago. The Belgian centre back duo of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen form the remainder of Spurs’ spine, flanked by Danny Rose on the left and dead-ball specialist Kieran Trippier on the right.
“We’re an unbelievable group, very close,” Vertonghen told Spurs’ official website. “We see each other on and off the pitch. It’s a group of friends and that shows in the games. We could talk about every single Champions League game this season. We’re close and I’m happy that it shows on the pitch.
“It has to be one of the best years of my career. To achieve this with this group of guys is great. It’s a talented group and they deserve it.”
Liverpool did the double over Tottenham during the Premier League season by 2-1 counts in both contests. In September at Wembley Stadium, Lloris was sidelined by a thigh injury as goals by Wijnaldum and Firmino on either side of halftime created an unassailable lead sliced in half late by Erik Lamela.
The return encounter at Anfield in March had the crackle and sizzle of an important top-four clash that was decided by a single moment. It belonged to Lloris, whose decision to paw out Salah’s cross instead of catch it proved disastrous as it clipped off Alderweireld’s leg and rolled over the line in the 90th minute.
The Reds have had the upper hand in this rivalry of late with nine wins and four draws against only one defeat in the last 14 matches in all competitions. The last non-league matchup between the sides came in the round of 16 in the 2017 League Cupm which Liverpool won 2-1 as Daniel Sturridge had a brace on either side of halftime.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 1, Liverpool 3.
THE ROAD TO MADRID
Tottenham Hotspur Liverpool
9/18 — @ Inter Milan, L 2-1 9/18 — vs. Paris-St. Germain, W 3-2
10/3 — vs. Barcelona, L 2-4 10/3 — @ Napoli, L 1-0
10/24 — @ PSV Eindhoven, D 2-2 10/24 — vs. Red Star Belgrade, W 4-0
11/6 — vs. PSV Eindhoven, W 2-1 11/6 — @ Red Star Belgrade, L 2-0
11/28 — vs. Inter Milan, W 1-0 11/28 — @ Paris-St. Germain, L 2-1
12/11 — @ Barcelona, D 1-1 12/11 — vs. Napoli, W 1-0
2/13 — vs. Borussia Dortmund, W 3-0 2/19 — vs. Bayern Munich, D 0-0
3/5 — @ Borussia Dortmund, W 0-1 (4-0 agg) 3/13 — @ Bayern Munich, W 1-3 (3-1 agg)
4/9 — vs. Manchester City, W 1-0 4/9 — vs. FC Porto, W 2-0
4/17 — @ Manchester City, L 4-3 (4-4 agg*) 4/17 — @ FC Porto, W 1-4 (6-1 agg)
4/30 — vs. Ajax, L 0-1 5/1 — @ Barcelona, L 3-0
5/8 — @ Ajax, W 2-3 (3-3 agg*) 5/7 — vs. Barcelona, W 4-0 (4-3 agg)
*– advanced on away goals tiebreaker
Tottenham Hotspur goal-scorers Liverpool goal-scorers
Harry Kane — 5 Roberto Firmino — 4
Lucas Moura — 5 Sadio Mane — 4
Heung-Mon Son — 4 Mohamed Salah — 4 (1)
Christian Eriksen — 2 James Milner — 2 (2)
Fernando Llorente — 2 Divock Origi — 2
Erik Lamela — 1 Georginio Wijnaldum — 2
Jan Vertonghen — 1 Virgil van Dijk — 2
Naby Keita — 1
Daniel Sturridge — 1
(UEFA Champions League trophy photo courtesy UEFA.com via AFP/Getty Images)
(Jurgen Klopp, Alisson, Mohamed Salah photos courtesy official Liverpool Twitter account)
(Mauricio Pochettino, Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son photos courtesy Tottenham Hotspur official Twitter account)