After the most extraordinary week in recent football memory, with Liverpool completing an unthinkable 4-0 turnaround against Barcelona and then Spurs shocking Ajax 3-2 in Amsterdam the following day, predictions for the Champions League final on June 1 seem futile at this point.
So here’s a preview suggesting why Liverpool and Tottenham will, and won’t, lift the trophy next month.
Ultimately, Liverpool are the better side. They sit 24 points ahead of Tottenham in the Premier League table and have recorded a pair of 2-1 victories over Spurs — in September at Wembley, then in March back at Anfield.
Jurgen Klopp can count upon the most dynamic, ruthless front three in Europe. The peculiar thing is that this wasn’t a factor in the incredible comeback against Barcelona: Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah were out injured, and Sadio Mane was relatively quiet by his standards. Firmino will probably drop into deeper positions to find space away from Spurs’ centre-backs, and the threat should come from the wider positions.
Salah was quiet in the first league meeting, although his late header forced Toby Alderweireld into an unfortunate own goal in the return at Anfield. The real key will be Mane — likely to be up against Kieran Trippier, who has endured a hugely disappointing campaign at right-back.
That’s the other area where Liverpool are clearly stronger: full-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold has taken on a role that is closer to playmaker than right-back at times, and continually fires incredible crosses into the box, while on the opposite flank Andy Robertson does something similar. Spurs’ pairing of Trippier and Danny Rose simply don’t exert the same level of influence.
Klopp has a poor record in cup finals. Since his Dortmund side thrashed Bayern 5-2 to complete an historic double back in 2012, Klopp has lost all six major finals he has competed in. He has lost the Champions League final twice, the German Cup final twice, the Europa League final and the League Cup final.
It’s important to put this in context: In almost all of those contests, Klopp’s side went into the final as underdogs. There was no shame in Dortmund losing to a Bayern side who had regularly poached their best players, nor was it unexpected when Real Madrid got the better of his Liverpool side. Perhaps the Europa League loss to Sevilla was the most disappointing, but that was relatively early in Klopp’s tenure at Liverpool, and this is a very different side.
If there is a common cause, it’s probably been fatigue. Klopp’s insistence upon energetic, dynamic football has often caused a drop-off in the final stages of seasons, which has sometimes manifested itself in late defeats in finals. The 2013 Champions League final loss to Bayern is the obvious example — Dortmund’s pressing meant they dominated the start of both halves, then dropped off dramatically.
But a few weeks of rest between the final Premier League game and the final in Madrid means this shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, Liverpool are up against a side who have looked more fatigued than them in recent weeks.
The doubt over Tottenham this season has been about whether they can compete over a 55-game season with such a limited squad. In the end, they’ve managed very well, effectively confirming their place in the Champions League next season via the top four, while battling through to the final itself.
There’s less doubt, though, over Spurs’ ability to compete in a one-off game, especially with two weeks’ rest and time for Mauricio Pochettino to devise a specific game plan on the training pitch. With the likes of Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli nearer full fitness, Tottenham are very much capable of matching Liverpool’s intensity and pressing ability in the centre of the pitch.
There’s also a suspicion that Harry Kane, seemingly ruled out for the season, could be fit to lead the line. His ankle injury wasn’t bad enough to prevent him sprinting onto the pitch to celebrate after Spurs completed their remarkable comeback against Ajax on Wednesday night, and while it’s difficult to read too much into a tweet consistently solely of an emoji, you suspect Kane wouldn’t have responded to the question if there was no chance of him making the game.
— Harry Kane (@HKane) May 8, 2019
For all Spurs’ excellence without him, particularly in the semifinal away leg at Manchester City, Kane provides Spurs with a different option, the ability to come towards play and whip the ball around the corner to onrushing counter-attackers. He’s also, clearly, a ruthless penalty box No. 9 — and, in that respect, something Liverpool don’t quite have.
While Liverpool have a similar starting XI to the side defeated last season by Real Madrid, and offer more experience of European competition overall, this will be by far the biggest game for almost every Tottenham player, with the arguable exception of Hugo Lloris, France’s World Cup-winning captain last season. The same is true for Pochettino, who has minimal experience of showpiece occasions like this.
The value of experience is debatable, but it’s also worth considering Spurs’ reputation for collapsing at key moments. The fan bases here have very different mentalities: Liverpool’s are generally optimistic and talk about their collective belief and the concept of destiny, while Spurs’ have been conditioned to expect the worst.
Perhaps it’s also worth considering the number of fans at the Wanda Metropolitano, too. It would be a surprise if Spurs supporters weren’t outnumbered by Liverpool fans — their official allocations are equal, but there will be plenty of “neutral” tickets being exchanged for huge prices, and Liverpool fans will probably dominate by weight of numbers.
Spurs also have more obvious areas of weakness compared to Liverpool, and the two-week break between matches means Klopp will be studying the videos of Pochettino’s side and working out how best to expose them. This is likely to mean a serious test for Spurs in the full-back positions, particularly as Liverpool were so effective down the flanks against Barcelona.