It was a bizarre affair in Madrid book-ended by two dramatic moments. In between, neither Liverpool nor Tottenham particularly did themselves justice as they played out a Champions League final which lacked quality throughout – and for long periods too, strangely lacked genuine intensity as well. Both sides looked nervous, out of sync and short on ideas, but eventually two fateful moments went Liverpool’s way in a 2-0 victory. Jurgen Klopp ended his hoodoo in European Cup finals and Liverpool picked up their sixth European trophy.
Within the first minute, the most controversial recurring theme of this season’s Champions League re-emerged. Seemingly attempting to orchestrate team-mates while shepherding Sadio Mane in the penalty area, the Liverpool forward blasted the ball into Moussa Sissoko’s chest and it bounced up onto his instructing arm. Not quite as controversial as the last few moments in Manchester United’s comeback at Parc de Princes, but a divisive penalty decision nonetheless. Mohamed Salah stepped up and his strike lacked composure – in fact, it was an incredibly saveable effort – but flew above a diving Hugo Lloris.
In many ways, Salah’s penalty summed up the first half. It was a nervous finish from a world-class player and the rest of the opening 45 minutes panned out as such. After that raucous start neither team managed to consistently get the ball down and play; perhaps because neither team has actually kicked a ball competitively for three weeks, perhaps because the heat in Madrid bordered upon unbearable, perhaps because both strikers entered this game with fitness concerns, or perhaps simply because this is the grandest occasion of the season, battled between two clubs who know each other almost too well and share so many fundamental principles.
Much of the space was out wide as both sets of full-backs lacked protection, but neither team really made it count. Tottenham’s most promising moments came in central areas when their midfield diamond created an overload, leading to some instinctive and exciting one-touch build up but nothing in the way of killer, penetrative passes. If only Tottenham could’ve combined that play with targeting the largely vacated flanks.
Goal aside in fact, Tottenham will have gone into the interval as the happier team – Liverpool coiled up after the early penalty – but there wasn’t much for either side to be hugely proud about as they returned to the dressing rooms.
The second half started with more openness as those spaces out wide began to gain significance. Only a poor ball and limited pace stopped Harry Winks from continuing a flowing Tottenham counter-attack after peeling from his anchoring role to the right-hand side, whilst Liverpool returned blows with a pair of dangerous crosses from their full-backs, neither quite finding their targets.
That flurry of exchanges though was shortlived as the game lost its rhythm again and was traded for a flurry of substitutions. Within a few minutes, the anonymous Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum – Liverpool’s unrelenting hero of the last round – were hooked off for Divock Origi and James Milner. And on 68 minutes, that change in personnel told as Mane fired the ball into Origi, who laid it off for the onrushing midfielder. He fired hard and low, but ever so slightly wide. It qualified as the first significant chance of the match, penalty excepted, halfway through the second period.
The strike seemed to ignite something amongst both teams. Tottenham charged up the pitch and whipped the ball across the box from both directions but nobody could make contact. Alisson then, thinking sharply, drilled the ball to Salah who had been left unguarded on the counter-attack. Eventually the ball found its way to Mane who could and probably should have gone down from another cumbersome penalty box moment from Sissoko, this time swiping around the Senegal star’s feet. That proved to be his last act of the game, subbed off for Eric Dier.
Suddenly, Spurs seemed to really accept the gravity of the situation – a goal down in a European final with the clock ticking – and their efforts going forward became far more purposeful and focused. Only an expert van Dijk tackle stopped Heung-min Son from sneaking in on goal, the largely anonymous Dele Alli tried to chip and spin the ball over Alisson from an audacious angle, Kane fizzed the ball into the six-yard box only to see his cross blocked. Trippier then curled in from the flank, but Alli was adjudged to have fouled Joel Matip as his header veered over the bar.
Son, taking up a more central position, began to really drive at Liverpool, rifling from around 25 yards with enough pace and power to force Alisson to spill wide. Suddenly putting the Merseysiders under pressure, Danny Rose was upended and Christian Eriksen whipped in a delicious free kick that was neither cross nor shot, seemingly destined to kiss the inside of the far post. Once again, Liverpool’s goalkeeper was able to match it.
But then, at the other end, just when Liverpool seemed to be doing little more than clinging on in desperate hope Tottenham couldn’t find the quality to take the game to extra time, came the decisive moment. Liverpool earned themselves a corner against the run of play and Tottenham just couldn’t clear effectively. Joel Matip helped keep it alive on the very cusp of the box before substitute Origi, free peeling in from the left, slid a shot hard and low into Hugo Lloris’ inside netting.
Tottenham continued to huff and puff but the writing was on the wall. While Spurs’ players collapsed to the floor in disappointment and exhaustion, Liverpool’s stars produced an outburst of uncontrollable joy.
It was far from a memorable final, it was far from what Liverpool have proved they can consistently produce offensively under the guidance of Klopp. But in many ways, it highlighted the vast differences between this current Liverpool team and the one that reached the final last season, that expended all of their energy in the opening exchanges and eventually wilted to the machine-like Real Madrid. This time, Liverpool remained composed and resilient enough to cling on. This time, Liverpool won ugly.
That’s no coincidence either; this whole season has been focused on giving Liverpool that steely underbelly, starting with Alisson in goal and continuing throughout the spine of the team. Even today’s No.8 Jordan Henderson started the season as Liverpool’s anchoring midfielder. Throw in van Dijk too and the shuffling of personnel has been crucial.
But equally as significantly, Klopp has changed the mantra of this Liverpool team, less powered by emotion and more devout to their own self-confidence, their belief in getting through difficult moments. It took them to within a point of perhaps the greatest team the Premier League has ever seen and now it has secured them the Champions League title. Fast forward 12 months, and last season’s runners-up are a different animal.