Tottenham and Liverpool’s Champions League final was a great moment for English football, announcing its return to the top of the continental tree, but it was far from a great advert for it.
Indeed, Liverpool lifted their sixth top European title after a rather underwhelming ninety minutes that was decided by two moments at either end of the match – Mohamed Salah’s early penalty and Divock Origi’s late strike past Hugo Lloris.
In between, there really wasn’t much to write home about as both sides failed to create any clear-cut chances and were mostly reduced to speculative shots from long range.
So how exactly did two of the most entertaining sides in the Premier League end up pulling off such a drab match? Here are five factors, most outside of Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp’s control, that made Saturday’s encounter inevitably underwhelming…
Despite the match lacking quality and energy for long periods, both sets of players looked out on their feet as the game entered the final 20 minutes. There’s one obvious reason for that – the sheer heat in Madrid simply sapped the life out of them.
It was around 30 degrees when Saturday’s clash kicked off at 9pm local time and judging by the players’ performances, the heat didn’t let up. Inevitably then, it was incredibly difficult for either team to engage in the high-pressing, high-octane style they’ve become synonymous with in recent years.
Klopp and Pochettino both gambled by starting first-choice strikers who weren’t fully fit heading into the game. Harry Kane hadn’t featured since the Champions League quarter-final when he hobbled off against Manchester City, whereas Roberto Firmino had managed just eleven minutes of competitive action following a full outing versus Cardiff City at the end of April.
In fairness, both sides struggled to produce that defence-splitting pass to feed in the front-men, but there was a distinct lack of movement to create such opportunities as well. Firmino was withdrawn around the hour mark and his replacement, Origi, grabbed the goal to decide the tie, while Kane would manage just a single shot at goal. Pretty much passengers throughout, Firmino and Kane’s injury problems left their sides somewhat toothless.
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The last competitive outings for both teams came on the final day of the Premier League season, May 12th, and they endured a wait longer than some international breaks heading into this game. There have been some benefits to that such as injured players returning for selection but it also goes a long way to explaining why there were so many wayward passes and loose touches – Liverpool’s pass completion was a woeful 64% in the end.
Compare that to Chelsea, the only team to really play top-quality football during this season’s all-English European finals. They came under huge criticism for playing a friendly in Boston prior to their Europa League final, but the 3-0 win over New England Revolution gave all the players the chance to stretch their legs and play in a somewhat competitive environment. Surely it’s no coincidence they ended up playing the best football of the four teams by far.
In this day and age, no team goes into a European final being unsure of what to expect from the opposition. With statistics, scouting, a whole team of analysts and modern day TV coverage, it’s impossible to keep any secrets.
But there’s nothing quite like having played a team before when sussing them out and Liverpool and Tottenham are just too familiar with each other. Knowing exactly what the opposition can do not only allows you to adequately prepare for them tactically but also creates an element of fear, aware that they’ve already proved they can cause damage.
Since arriving in England in October 2015, Klopp has faced Pochettino’s Tottenham ten times; rather tellingly, in just one of those games has a side scored more than two goals. Just look at the last all-English Champions League final as well – Chelsea vs Man United was an absolute snoozefest, eventually decided by penalties.
Perhaps it’s obvious but its undoubtedly true; for a lot of players, winning a Champions League final will be a once in a lifetime moment. Nerves are inevitable and they showed constantly throughout the ninety minutes. Liverpool seemed to struggle with the role of being favourites, especially after taking the early lead, and while Tottenham managed to take control of the ball they lacked the composure to really make it count in the final third.
Much of this Liverpool squad featured in last season’s final and in the end that experience seemed to make a difference, but neither team managed to shake off early nerves and that went a long way to defining the quality of their performances.